Did The U.S. Threaten Britain Over Torture?

Judges in the United Kingdom are investigating whether a Brit named Binyam Mohamed was tortured by U.S. interrogators over a period of three years ending in 2005. Sadly, that sentence isn't the remarkable one. What comes next is pretty shocking, if true: British authorities allege that the United States has asked Britain to suppress evidence of the torture and reportedly threatened severe penalties should Britain refuse to comply.  A few points should be brought forth now: one is that Mohamed is on trial for conspiracy to plan terrorist attacks, and there is plenty of evidence that he's a bad guy. Two: the foreign secretary, David Miliband, just off a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, denies that the U.S. ever made such threats.  The row, as they say overseas, began when a senior conservative MP named David Davis complained about the case to an audience in Parliament. An investigation was immediately launched.

Still, the verbiage used by all parties, including the United States, is tricky. Milibrand concedes that the U.S. is worried about intelligence sources and methods being disclosed in the trial and did communicate those worries to Britain. Britain's top court reluctantly agreed to keep the information provided by the U.S. government from the British public, but they made public their disagreement with the manner in which the request  was made.  Mohamed wants access to 42 documents he claims will prove that he was repeatedly tortured by Americans, and that his confessions were of dubious provenance.

Step back just for a moment.

Much of the existing U.S. intelligence apparatus consists of officials empowered by the Bush Administration.  Leon Panetta, the incoming CIA director, has his confirmation hearing today. The Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, arrived at the job this week. The State Department's intelligence overseer began her job this week  has not even been nominated yet. Policy review processes remain.  It is quite possible that the White House, or some intelligence authority acting on behalf of the White House, asked Britain not to reveal the information provided to them because the new administration hasn't gotten a handle on evertyhing that its intelligence authorities did and are doing. As much as there's a preference for disclosure and transparency, when it comes to national security, precuations and prudence are legitimate. It may well be that Mohamed was tortured -- and that information was obtained legally using methods that are legal and ethical, and that a blanket disclosure of information would threaten the former as well as the latter.

The Bush Administration left the Obama Administration with a Gordian knot. Untying it is not easy. Strands will be frayed, jagged, and can cut deep.

The idea that the U.S. would actually threaten to cut off intelligence cooperation with the U.K. is absurd. There are so many entagling operations, so many pre-existing agreements, so many pre-existing relationships so as to render that threat inoperable.

But something spooked the British judges. And given the allegations, attention by reporters here in the states is required.

Update: a full response from the British government is here.