LONDON – A British court ruling to keep U.S. intelligence documents out of the public domain sparked debate Thursday over whether the British government had a responsibility in exposing the torture allegations of a British resident held in Guantanamo Bay since 2004.
Two senior justices delivered a ruling Wednesday with two main points — there was significant evidence to show Binyam Mohamed was either tortured or abused in US custody but their hands were tied in making the documents public because of the British government's national security concerns.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband backed the ruling and said it was not for Britain to disclose U.S. intelligence data.
"I am not going to join a lobbying campaign against the American government for this decision," Miliband told Parliament. "It's a decision they have to make given their knowledge of the full facts in respect of the sources they depend on and the resources that they do not want to compromise."
President Barack Obama's administration has vowed to banish torture-induced interrogations and to close the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay where hundreds of men have been held without charge since it opened in January 2002 — four months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Making detainee documents public could be a risky move for an administration trying to repair its international image but Mohamed's imminent release from the prison camp could force the United States to answer some uncomfortable questions unanswered by the Bush administration.
Mohamed, 31, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, and claims he was tortured there for three months before Americans sent him to Morocco where interrogators tortured him. He claims his interrogators in Morocco asked him questions about things that only British intelligence agents could have known.
Senior Justices John Thomas and Justice Lloyd Jones, who have seen all of the 42 documents relating to Mohamed, said the material documented Mohamed's treatment in US custody but did not contain information that could jeopardize U.S. or British national security.
The ruling was in response to a legal challenge brought by The Associated Press, Guardian News and Media Ltd., British Broadcasting Corp., Times Newspapers Limited, Independent News and Media Ltd., The Press Association and The New York Times.
The justices said they believed keeping some of the material secret amounted to concealing "the gist of the evidence of serious wrongdoing by the United States which had been facilitated in part by the United Kingdom government."
The British government denies it had knowledge of Mohamed's alleged torture or abuse. It has also said it only learned that Mohamed had been sent to Morocco to be interrogated a year after he had already been in Guantanamo.
Still, Britain's Attorney General's office is investigating claims that Britain was complicit in the alleged torture.
Charges against Mohamed were recently dropped but he remains in Guantanamo on a hunger strike.
The British court case began before the charges were dropped. Attorneys claimed the British government had U.S. intelligence documents that could prove any evidence against Mohamed had been gathered under torture.
The lawyers were eventually given all 42 documents but some of them were redacted.
"The issue at stake is not the content of the intelligence material, but the principle at the heart of all intelligence relationships — that a country retains control of its intelligence information and it cannot be disclosed by foreign authorities without its consent," Miliband said. "That is a principle we neglect at our peril."
Miliband filed a written submission to the court last year to say why the documents should not be made public.
He claimed John Belliger, legal advisor to the former US Secretary of State, sent a letter to his office in August that said disclosing the documents "is likely to result in serious damage to US national security and could harm existing intelligence information sharing arrangements between our two governments."
Miliband furthered in the argument in closed representations to the court — proceedings in which the public were barred.
"It was and remains ... the judgment of the Foreign Secretary that the United States Government might carry that threat out," the ruling said.
Milband said Thursday there was never any "threat."
Ed Davey, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said a close ally like the United States would never cut Britain off from vital intelligence information.
He said the government had "rolled over in the face of a scarcely credible threat from a friend."
Conservative Party lawmaker Andrew Tyrie said Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee should review the 42 documents urgently.
"It is clear from the High Court's ruling in this case that the Intelligence and Security Committee was misled about the involvement of the UK Security Service in the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed," Tyrie said.
Miliband said he recently spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton about Mohamed's return.
He said Mohamed's release would be "in full accordance not just with his rights but with British security considerations.
Mohamed is one of two British residents remaining in Guantanamo.