Britain's bizarre reaction to war crimes allegations: investigations needed

Surveying debates in other countries can reveal how vapid and corrupted our own political class is.

Published March 8, 2009 1:33PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Binyam Mohamed is the British resident who, two weeks ago, was released from Guantanamo and returned to Britain after seven years of detention, often in brutal conditions.  Since his return, compelling evidence has been steadily emerging that British agents were knowingly complicit in Mohamed's torture while in U.S. custody -- including the discovery of telegrams sent by British intelligence officers to the CIA asking the CIA to extract information from him.  How does a country with a minimally healthy political class and a pretense to the rule of law react to such allegations of criminality?  From the BBC:

MPs have demanded a judicial inquiry into a Guantanamo Bay prisoner's claims that MI5 was complicit in his torture. . . .

[Mohamed's] allegations are being investigated by the government, but the Foreign Office said it did not condone torture.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said the "extremely serious" claims should also be referred to the police. . . .

Daniel Sandford, BBC Home Affairs correspondent, said Mr Mohamed's claims would be relatively simple to substantiate.

"As time progresses it will probably become quite apparent whether indeed these are true telegrams and I think it's unlikely they'd be put into the public domain if they couldn't eventually be checked back."

The Conservatives have called for a police inquiry into his allegations of British collusion.

Mr Grieve called for a judicial inquiry into the allegations.

"And if the evidence is sufficient to bring a prosecution then the police ought to investigate it," he added.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said there was a "rock solid" case for an independent judicial inquiry. . . .

Shami Chakrabati, director of campaign group Liberty said: "These are more than allegations - these are pieces of a puzzle that are being put together.

"It makes an immediate criminal investigation absolutely inescapable."

The Guardian adds:

New revelations by Guantánamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, claiming that British intelligence played a central role in his torture and interrogation, must be answered by the government, the former shadow home secretary David Davis said last night. . . .

[Mohamed's] allegations appear to contradict assertions by foreign secretary David Miliband and home secretary Jacqui Smith that the British government would never "authorise or condone" torture.

Davis said Mohamed's testimony demanded a response from these ministers. "His revelations show that the government's claims about its involvement in the interrogation of Mohamed are completely untenable," Davis said. "Either Miliband or Smith should come to the House of Commons and reveal exactly what the government knew."

Last night other public figures said there should be wider efforts to look into the allegations that the British government had colluded in Mohamed's torture.

Notice what is missing from these accounts.  There is nobody arguing that the dreary past should simply be forgotten in order to focus on the important and challenging future.  There's no snide suggestion that demands to investigate serious allegations of criminality are driven by petty vengeance or partisan score-settling.  Nobody suggests that it's perfectly permissible for government officials to commit serious crimes -- including war crimes -- as long as they had nice motives or were told that it was OK to do these things by their underlings, or that the financial crisis (which Britain has, too) precludes any investigations, or that whether to torture is a mere "policy dispute."  Also missing is any claim that these crimes are State Secrets that must be kept concealed in order to protect British national security.

Instead, the tacit premise of the discussion is that credible allegations of criminality -- even if committed by high government officials, perhaps especially then -- compel serious criminal investigations.  Imagine that.  How shrill and radical.

If one stays immersed in American domestic political debates, it's easy to lose sight of just how corrupted and rotted our political and media class is, because the most twisted ideas become enshrined as elite orthodoxies.  Britain is hardly the paragon of transparency and adherence to international conventions; to the contrary, they've been with the U.S. every step of the way over the last eight years, enabling and partaking in many of the worst abuses.  Yet this one single case of documented complicity in torture -- mere complicity with, not actual commission of, the torture -- is generating extreme political controversy and widespread demands across the political spectrum for judicial and criminal investigations.  The British political class may not have wanted to see it, but when compelling evidence of criminality is rubbed in their faces, they at least pay lip service to the idea that crimes by government officials must be investigated and subjected to accountability.

By stark and depressing contrast, America's political class and even most of its "journalists" -- in the face of far, far greater, more heinous and more direct war criminality by their highest political leaders -- are explicitly demanding that nothing be done and that it all be kept concealed.  They're surveying undeniable evidence of grotesque war crimes committed over many years by our government -- including enabling legal theories that even Fred Hiatt described as "scary," "lawless" and "disgraceful" -- and are literally saying:  "just forget about that; it doesn't matter."   Our country is plagued by "journalists" like The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, giggling with smug derision over the very few efforts to investigate these massive crimes -- and then even lying on NPR by claiming that support for investigations is confined to "a small but very vocal minority within the Party – these are the same folks who were pushing for the impeachment of the President and the Vice President right up [dismissive chuckling] basically to the time of the Inauguration" (to see how flagrantly false is Milbank's statement about support within the Party for investigations, see here and here and here; the NPR host, needless to say, said nothing to correct him).

The accountability-free, self-loving mentality that demands that nothing be done about America's war crimes over the last eight years is hardly confined to America's detention, surveillance and interrogation policies.  This is exactly the same bloated, insular corruption that allows multi-billion-dollar insider frauds like this one not only to go unexamined but also to result in those responsible being further empowered with high government positions.  It's what lets someone like Tom Friedman think he can lecture us all with a straight face on the evils of overconsumption, the ravaging effects of our "growth model," and the environment-destroying impact of consumerism as he lives in this house, financed by his heiress-wife's shopping-center-developing company, his books urging unfettered globalization, and his columns urging various wars. 

In sum, we have the only country, and the only results, that it's possible to have given who has been wielding influence.  And nothing expresses more vividly what they are than their explicit insistence that systematic war crimes committed by their own Government be immunized and forgotten, underscored by their bizarre feelings of "centrism"-smugness and Seriousness-superiority for expressing that definitively lawless and amoral view.

* * * * *

One other point about Mohamed:  Last month, the Obama DOD claimed that it conducted an investigation and concluded that Guantanamo now fully comports with all Geneva standards.  In a New York Times interview yesterday, President Obama claimed (for the first time, to my knowledge) that most of the problems with Bush's detention policies were confined to what he called "the steps that were taken immediately after 9/11," and that most of those problems were fixed by CIA Director Michael Hayden and DNI Michael McConnell "by the time [Obama] took office" because Hayden and McConnell "were mindful of American values and ideals."

Compare all of that to Binyam Mohamed's post-release statements -- supported by other corroborating evidence -- that "conditions at the US detention camp in Cuba have worsened since President Barack Obama was elected. . . . "'Since the election it's got harsher,' Mohamed told the newspaper."  Isn't this something that the U.S. Government should be called upon to address?


UPDATE:  Slate's Dahlia Lithwick reviews, and dismantles, each of the justifications being offered by the Obama administration for keeping Bush crimes concealed and shielding them from investigations and prosecutions (h/t Bystander).   It's quite concise and well worth reading in its entirety (as is Digby's discussion of that article).


UPDATE II:  In comments, Cocktailhag writes:

It is something of an upside down world wherein journalists, as a class, comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, and see nothing odd about this.

At times I've wondered whether Watergate would have even been discovered by the mindless media we have today, but even worse, whether they all would have just explained it away.

It's difficult to select what one thinks is the single most illustrative symbol of how our country now functions, but if I were forced to do so, I would choose the fact that it is America's journalists -- who claim to be devoted to serving as a check on Government and exposing its secrets -- who are, instead, leading the way in demanding that the Government's actions of the last eight years be concealed; in trying to quash efforts to investigate and expose those actions; and in demanding immunity for government lawbreakers.  What kind of country does one expect to have where (with some noble exceptions) it is journalists, of all people, who take the lead in concealing, protecting and justifying government wrongdoing, and whose overriding purpose is to serve, rather than check, political power?  "Upside down world," indeed.

By Glenn Greenwald

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