No Comment — May 4, 2010, 4:16 pm

Secrecy, Torture, and the Common Law

Much of the debate about possible trials of Guantánamo prisoners in a federal court and much of the struggle in proceedings at Guantánamo has a dark subtext. The Obama Administration and supporters of the Bush Administration are intent on suppressing evidence that prisoners were tortured and avoiding accountability for those who tortured. To this end, the government pleads for secret evidence, attempts to ban the public from hearings, and disguises individuals involved in the interrogation process as “interrogator x.” All of these efforts reflect a trashing of centuries-old traditions requiring the public presentation of evidence and accountability for all, including those who give evidence. Today, a court in England has gone to great lengths to remind us of our shared legal heritage. The Guardian reports:

The court of appeal has ruled that the government cannot use secret
evidence in the case being brought against it by Binyam Mohamed
and five other former Guantánamo Bay detainees over torture
allegations. The court of appeal has dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of their alleged complicity in the torture and secret transfer
of British residents to Guantánamo Bay. In a devastating judgment, it ruled that the unprecedented attempt by the security and intelligence agencies, backed by the attorney general and senior Whitehall officials, to suppress evidence in a civil trial
undermined deep-seated principles of common law and open justice. MI5 and MI6 said evidence in the case, in which the Guardian, the Times
and the BBC intervened, should be kept secret from everyone except the
judges and specially appointed and vetted counsel.

In their ruling, Lord Neuberger, master of the rolls, Lord Justice
Maurice Kay, and Lord Justice Sullivan said that accepting the case of
the security and intelligence agencies would amount to “undermining one
of [the common law's] most fundamental principles”.

“A further fundamental common law principle is that trials should be
conducted in public, and the judgments should be given in public. In our view the principle that a litigant should be able to see and
hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining
his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law that, in the
absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it, at any
rate in relation to an ordinary civil claim …”

The full opinion can be examined here.

The decision was rendered on the basis of the common law, the legal tradition that was incorporated as a part of United States law in 1789 and also served as the basis for the law of the original American states. The principles noted by the Court of Appeal were all incorporated into the common law by the time of the American Revolution and thus all also belong to American law.

The Court of Appeal’s decision to resolve the matter on the basis of seventeenth-century precedent, and not current international law doctrines, has an obvious impetus, which is to remind the Americans of a shared bond. Unfortunately, even as the decision was being announced in London, the American government was doing its best to establish different rules for Guantánamo. At present, it looks like the torture secrets of the Bush-Cheney era will be exposed in the courts of England, while in America they will be kept secret.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. "
Photograph by Sebastian Meyer
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Flying Blind·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground.”
Article
The Monkey Did It·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Murakami’s fiction, what presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously to be a keyhole.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
PBS Self-Destructs·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The present state of PBS, the result of built-in deficiencies and ideological conflicts, was almost an inevitability.”
Illustration by Thomas Allen

Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams:

4

In India, 1.8 million female children were estimated to have died between 1985 and 2005 as an indirect result of domestic violence against their mothers; the boys of abused mothers were not at increased risk of death.

Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today