Former President Bush’s memoirs caused huge controversy last week when he defended his involvement in the water boarding of terrorist suspects by claiming that the information obtained through such actions had helped to safeguard American and British lives. It was thus in an atmosphere of intense suspicion and huge controversy that it was announced yesterday that the British government is to hand out million pound compensation packages to inmates of Guantánamo Bay, who allege that the British Security Services, MI5 and MI6 among them, colluded in their torture whilst they were held in the American military detention centre in Cuba.
Whilst such a payout will inevitably look like a not-so-subtle admission of guilt, especially when placed in the context of Bush’s candid admissions (despite his unconvincing claim that simulated drowning is not legally defined as torture in the US), the coalition government have been quick to stress the innocence of Britain’s Security Services. Indeed, the government have fought the allegations vigorously, raising the question of why such a climb down has now been undertaken.
Essentially it all stems from the government’s argument for the “greater good” – it wants to keep state secrets exactly that, secret. In the summer, when Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed and Martin Mubanga began their court case, the coalition made it clear that they wished to avoid a massive suit that would put the British Secret Services under the spotlight of judicial and, perhaps more significantly for the government as an elected body, public review.
The decision to pay out millions of pounds to these men, when seen in this light, is thus unsurprising though deeply controversial. In May, the Court of Appeal rejected ministers’ requests to hear the evidence relating to the validity of these claims and their relation to the Security Services in closed court, restricting access to secret evidence and sensitive material. The Court ruled that a hearing could not be held in such circumstances, and the government could not rely on secret evidence since, in the interests of justice, accusations of wrong-doing have to be heard in public.
Instead of allowing these sensitive secrets to come to light then, David Cameron thus took the decision to offer the accusers a settlement, the result of which is today’s announcement of a payout. Perhaps more importantly though, his actions have also prevented half a million secret documents coming into the public domain and the beginning of a huge civil case that could have taken up to three years and cost the taxpayer millions. Thus, in settling the case, the government has achieved its greater goal.
Already though, the accusation of cover-ups and white wash are abundant in the media frenzy such a controversial move necessarily makes. The Telegraph in its reporting used the phrase (although in quotation marks) “paid off” and the Mail branded the settlement “hush money”. The director of Human Rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, said of the payments that, “It’s not very palatable but there is a price to be paid for lawlessness and torture in freedom’s name.” None of these sources specifically accuse the Security Services of collusion but the implication is clear – the payment of huge sums of government money to terror suspects does seem to add weight to the case of those who claim complicity.
The government’s claim of innocence is further undermined by the revelations that came out of the specific circumstances surrounding the experience of one of the detainees, Binyam Mohamed. In an earlier court case, it emerged that a British intelligence officer had visited him during his detention in Pakistan, prior to his removal to Morocco and subsequently, Guantánamo in 2002. It also became apparent that he suffered torture and that, during his interrogation, his captors asked him questions supplied by MI5.
To those who oppose the government’s course of action then, such evidence already in the public domain could provide the argument for the need to have the accusation of collusion brought out into the open, away from the “cloak and dagger” of closed courts or indeed, the avoidance of any court case at all. Furthermore, there is the argument of accountability – if torture has been committed in the name of the British public, we have a right to know about it.
Paradoxically though, this is exactly what the payment of compensation to these detainees will achieve. The dismissal of the civil case against the Security Services facilitates the launch of the Gibson inquiry, a judge-led inquiry into the central accusations of complicity and rendition that have serious implications for us all. The payment allows that inquiry to happen quickly and efficiently, and crucially prevents the exposure of important intelligence and state secrets, balancing the competing claims of security and transparency. In the words of BBC Correspondent Dominic Casciani, “the inquiry will now go about its business but the main accusers won’t be appearing in public demanding the exposure of a secret paper trail from Afghanistan to government offices in London.”
In a way then, although the paying out of millions of pounds may look bad for a government still protesting its innocence, it may prove to be the correct decision in both the interests of the protection of the British public and justice itself. Exposing state secrets whilst simultaneously damaging relations with the US and its intelligence services cannot be to our advantage when we are still so heavily involved in ongoing conflicts and where the Americans are our only ally. State secrets must be kept safe for our present and future protection and, in the long run, the avoidance of a long and expensive court case is to the advantage of us all. Ultimately, if the accusations turn out to be false, the British government will have paid out money to liars, but surely finally proving publicly the validity of claims of British collusion in torture vindicates such a sacrifice. Whatever the conclusions of the Gibson inquiry, these payouts must be recognised for what they are– they are not an admission of guilt but a pragmatic solution in the public interest that will allow the truth to be exposed.