If sensationalist press reports are to be believed, the US and UK governments have just been caught covering up “torture.” Such has been the media’s framing of the British government’s release yesterday of a seven-paragraph intelligence summary compiled by the British High Court and detailing the CIA’s treatment of Ethiopian-born British citizen Binyam Mohamed, an al-Qaeda operative and former Guantanamo Bay detainee.
That the U.S. and U.K. both opposed the release of the seven paragraphs, which was ordered by the British Court of Appeal, has been touted by Mohamed’s lawyers and supporters as evidence of their complicity in torture. Mohamed himself has long made that claim, portraying himself as the victim of a systematic torture policy “orchestrated by the United States government” with the complicity of its British ally. Mohamed’s claim was accepted by the appeals court, which concluded that “UK authorities had been involved in and facilitated the ill-treatment and torture to which [Mohamed] was subjected while under the control of USA authorities.” With yesterday’s release, civil liberties groups on the Left have also claimed vindication. In the triumphant words of a spokesman for Liberty, Britain’s equivalent of the ACLU, the released paragraphs reveal that the British government “has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up kidnap and torture.”
These are substantial charges. They are also demonstrably untrue. As even a cursory reading of the High Court’s summary shows, the paragraphs in question reveal nothing about torture. Here is what the paragraphs actually say:
It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2001 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer.
v) It was reported that at some stage during that further interview process by the United States authorities, BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed.
vi) It was reported that combined with the sleep deprivation, threats and inducements were made to him. His fears of being removed from United States custody and “disappearing” were played upon.
vii) It was reported that the stress brought about by these deliberate tactics was increased by him being shackled in his interviews
viii) It was clear not only from the reports of the content of the interviews but also from the report that he was being kept under self-harm observation, that the inter views were having a marked effect upon him and causing him significant mental stress and suffering.
ix) We regret to have to conclude that the reports provide to the SyS made clear to anyone reading them that BM was being subjected to the treatment that we have described and the effect upon him of that intentional treatment.
x) The treatment reported, if had been administered on behalf of the United Kingdom, would clearly have been in breach of the undertakings given by the United Kingdom in 1972. Although it is not necessary for us to categorise the treatment reported, it could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities]”
As evidence of torture, this is far from compelling. Leaving aside the question of whether coercive interrogation techniques like waterboarding constitute “torture,” they were never used on Mohamed. The furthest that U.S. interrogators were willing to go was to deprive Mohammed of sleep – always under closely supervised conditions – and threaten – only threaten – him with the possibility of rendition – that is, that he could be sent somewhere where he really could be tortured.
Nor does the disclosure that Mohamed was shackled amount to torture. That is standard procedure for detainees interrogated at Guantanamo Bay, and it imposes no physical stress. In one section of Guantanamo Bay, for instance, detainees can sit for interrogations on a plush couch, even as they have to wear leg shackles. The latter does not significantly detract from their comfort.
It’s true that measures like sleep deprivation, even if carefully monitored, are by design unpleasant. But to conclude, as the High Court did, that this treatment qualifies as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities” is to expand the definition of torture beyond all reasonable boundaries. And while it’s possible that Mohammed did suffer from “mental stress” due to his confinement, it’s equally clear that nothing he experienced at the hands of U.S. authorities can be construed as torture. (To be sure, Mohamed has also alleged that he was tortured with a scalpel during a rendition to Morocco. That is a serious allegation. Yet the intelligence summary released this week provides no evidence for this abuse, let alone that either the British or U.S. authorities knowingly approved of it.)
Lack of evidence aside, another problem with the torture charges is that they obscure the reason that Mohamed was detained in the first place: As terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn explains elsewhere in these pages, Mohamed was an al-Qaeda operative who trained to kill Americans in a series of attacks in the aftermath of 9/11.
By his own admission, as given to U.S. interrogators, Mohamed first fell under the sway of extremist Muslim clerics in London in the late 90s. It was their influence – and not, as he would improbably claim later, hopes of abandoning a drug habit – that would lead him to Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks. Beginning in June 2001, he received paramilitary training at al Farouq, an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan whose graduates included some of the 9/11 hijackers. In the 40 days he spent at the camp, Mohamed received a crash course in terrorism for new recruits, training in everything from the use of light arms to homemade explosives and detonators.
Mohammed would later claim that he was only training to join the jihad against Russia in Chechnya, and that he had no intention of attacking the United States. Declassified U.S. intelligence suggests otherwise. According to the military’s Combatant Status Review Board memo, Mohammed personally urged senior al-Qaeda leaders to attack subway trains in the U.S. Later, Mohammed would travel to Pakistan, where he would receive instructions on making a “dirty bomb” to be detonated in the U.S. as part of a “second wave” of al-Qaeda attacks. Mohamed’s accomplice on the trip, so-called “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, would be convicted on related charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism in 2007. During their time in Pakistan, Mohamed and Padilla were coached on several possible terrorist plots to be carried out in the US. One involved setting fire to a hotel or gas station; a more ambitious plan sought to simultaneously blow up 20 buildings in the central US.
Mohammed never got the chance to carry out the attacks. In April 2002, he was arrested in Pakistan for having a falsified passport. From there, he would be transported to Morocco, Afghanistan, and ultimately Guantánamo Bay. All evidence suggests that he deserved to be there. Not only did US interrogators identify him as a committed jihadist, but Mohammed admitted as much himself. On one occasion, he told interrogators that, even if released, he still considered America the enemy and would seek revenge against America and Britain.
Considering his deep involvement in jihadist terrorism, the most troubling aspect of Mohamed’s case is not how he was treated by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay – the released memos confirm that his treatment in US custody was extremely lenient – but that he is no longer a resident of the facility. Last February, his four-year detention in Guantanamo ended abruptly, when the Obama administration ordered his release and allowed him to return to the UK.
That may be the most perverse part of Binyam Mohamed’s story. A confessed al-Qaeda terrorist who plotted to kill thousands of Americans walks free, while U.S. interrogators and their British counterparts stand accused sanctioning human rights abuses. It’s not the kind of revenge that Mohamed promised at Guantanamo. But it is a victory for Islamic terrorism all the same.