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Britain Investigates Torture


For the past three years, British courts have led the press for a comprehensive investigation of British intelligence involvement in CIA torture programs. In case after case, judges rejected the Labour Government’s claims that what transpired was not torture and that national-security concerns (specifically, keeping the CIA’s secrets) trumped the interests of justice. In their most recent ruling, the judges were finally explicit in concluding that the opposite was so: national-security classifications must fall in the face of credible allegations of torture—in essence the criminal-law prohibition on torture is a more fundamental legal rule than that which draws a cloak of secrecy over the work of the intelligence services. As British voters turned the left-leaning Labour Government from power and replaced them with a right-leaning coalition led by the Conservatives, most close observers of the issue expected that a serious judicial and prosecutorial inquiry into torture would finally occur. On Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron laid out the ground rules for the torture probe in an important speech to Parliament:

Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law – indeed for much of what the Services exist to protect – risks being tarnished. Public confidence is being eroded with people doubting the ability of our Services to protect us and questioning the rules under which they operate. And terrorists and extremists are able to exploit these allegations for their own propaganda.

Mr Speaker, myself, the Deputy Prime Minister, the coalition government – we all believe it is time to clear this matter up once and for all. So today I want to set out how we will deal with the problems of the past how we will sort out the future and, crucially, how we can make sure the security services can get on, do their job and keep us safe…

We cannot have their work impeded by these allegations. We need to restore Britain’s moral leadership in the world. That’s why we are determined to clear things up.

It is significant and proper that Cameron justifies the inquiry as necessary to remove the cloud from the intelligence services. In the United States, the opposition most frequently articulated towards any inquiry is that it will destroy the CIA’s morale and effectiveness. But in fact only a tiny handful of CIA employees were ever involved in the use of torture techniques, and the real issue goes not even so much to them as to the policy makers who gave a green light. The developments in Britain also show that it is puerile nonsense to characterize opposition to torture as “left” and support for torture as “conservative.” In Britain, the push for a stand against torture has steadily come from the right, and the cloak of national security secrecy has been invoked by the left. The torture issue has nothing to do with traditional political ideology. It has to do with the corruption of power and the desire of those who have it to avoid any accountability for their misconduct.

In showing the road forward on this vital issue, Britain has done a better service to the “special relationship” than it did with the poodle-like deeds of the Blair era. It’s time for the United States to follow this example. It can start with some minor acts that demonstrate the Obama Administration’s commitment to the prohibition on torture. One would be to create a process to compensate innocent victims of torture that the United States has already acknowledged: the cases of mistaken identity like Maher Arar and Khaled El-Masri, and the case of the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar, who already holds an Italian money judgment against United States agents. But the far larger debt owed in this case is to the American people who have a right to know what was done, who instigated the process, and how we can be certain that it has actually been brought to a close.

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