Is Obama Threatening the “Special Relationship” to Hide Torture?

I noted, when David Cameron was in town, that his Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, was pushing to expand “closed material proceedings” as a way to better protect secret information. The effort was a response, Clarke claimed, to courts forcing the government to release information about Binyam Mohamed’s torture, which ended up revealing the US was using some torture techniques before the Bybee Memo purportedly approved torture.

Now, Cameron’s government is ratcheting up the fear-mongering, claiming that the US withheld information about a terrorist threat 18 months ago because of the the Mohamed release.

The CIA warned MI6 that al-Qaeda was planning an attack 18 months ago, but withheld detailed information because of concerns it would be released by British courts.

British intelligence agencies were subsequently forced to carry out their own investigations, according to Whitehall sources.

Several potential terrorists were identified with links to a wider European plot, but it is still not known whether the British authorities have uncovered the full extent of the threat.

I flew through London 18 months ago during what I suspect was this terror threat. It was the kind of threat where one airline–American–had rolled out the full heightened security theater, but another–Delta–had nothing special, both on the same day.

That kind of terrorist threat.

If it is true the CIA is withholding such information (I’m not saying I buy that the US withheld information from a serious threat), then consider what this means. Back in August 2006, the US (specifically, Dick Cheney and Jose Rodriguez) betrayed the “Special Relationship” by asking the Pakistanis to arrest one of the plotters in the liquid planes plot, which in turn forced the Brits to roll up their own investigation before they had solidified the case against the plotters. Several of the plotters had to be tried two times to get a conviction. The Bush Administration did all this as an election stunt.

And yet we’re the ones purportedly complaining about information sharing?

What’s interesting about all this is that, in supporting his fear-mongering, Cameron tied this plan with his plan to suck up all the Toobz data in the UK.

As I see it, there are some significant gaps in our defences, gaps because of the moving-on of technology — people making telephone calls through the internet, rather than through fixed line — but also gaps in our defences because it isn’t currently possible to use intelligence information in a court of law without sometimes endangering national security.

FWIW, I had already been wondering whether the Brits’ last attempt to expand their data collection derived from the 2006 fiasco–not least given questions regarding data sharing (we withheld some NSA data until 2008) and the role of the murdered GCHQ scientist Gareth Williams in the investigation. Why spend a lot of money recreating what we’ve already got in UT, unless the traditional data-sharing between the US and UK wasn’t working out that well?

Note, these national security power grabs are slightly different: one aspires to replicate what the US already has and–at least in theory–willingly shares, while the other purportedly responds to actions we’ve taken.

But the implication is that Cameron says Brits need to sacrifice several important legal protections so the US can hide its torture.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. klynn says:

    “..Brits need to sacrifice several important legal protections so that the US can hide its torture…”

    The tide turns…once the colonists were told they had to sacrifice for protections and no representation…

    OT Cynthia notes you in a great post:

    “I’m guessing german banks care more about their own survival than the survival of US banks or the US economy. Or they have finally come to the realization that “extend and pretend” [Marcy coined that] is delaying any meaningful recovery from the first depression and it’s time to cut out the cancer of these RMBS.”

    Thought some Wheelers might want to say hi to her and visit the post:

    http://my.firedoglake.com/cindykouril/2012/04/04/big-empty-bag-of-nothing/

  2. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks for this. Do you know anything about which secrets may be at issue here, more recent than the one 18 months ago?

    BTW, what happened to the comment edit functions? I don’t see them any more.

    Thanks,
    Bob in AZ

  3. JTMinIA says:

    Semi-OT, but I’d love to hear people’s reactions to Goldsmith on the Daily Show last night.

  4. rosalind says:

    @Bob Schacht: “BTW, what happened to the comment edit functions? I don’t see them any more.”

    ew accidentally nuked them doing some site work, and is working on getting them back.

  5. Z says:

    I don’t believe that the u.s. is withholding any intelligence from the british government. Imagine the damage to the obama and u.s. brands if a terrorist attack happened in britain and british citizens were killed and it was leaked that the the obama administration withheld intelligence from the british that could have prevented the attack in order to gain leverage to protect torturers?

    I think this is all bullshit theater that cameron, obama, and clinton unwisely concocted for cameron to use to justify why it is best that the british government continue to shield u.s. torturers from prosecution and to promote the need to further impinge upon british citizens’ civil liberties.

    So now what happens if and when there is a successful attack in britain? Will there be rumors that the u.s. had intelligence on it but withheld it to protect torturers?

    Z

  6. Frank33 says:

    @Z:
    That has already happened. The Mumbai attack was assisted by CIA agent David Headley. The US Intelligence Community withheld info from Britain, before and after Mumbai.

    One story is that Headley was only arrested because Britain threatened to reveal Headley’s involvement in Mumbai. The other story, according to Debbie Schlussel, is that an alert immigration agent, noticed that Headley had no records of his immigration business. World Wide Exports, oops wrong. Headley worked for First World Services, bringing ISI agents, no, hard working Pakistanis, to America.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Brits have been particularly bad at negotiating quid pro quos in this so-called special relationship since Winston Churchill left 10 Downing Street. Their US counterparts consider the specialness a joke; they treat it special in the way that JP Morgan and William Cromwell treated Panama as special circa 1910.

    The Brits largely use the “relationship” as a publicity stunt to deflect attention from their own questionable overseas behavior. They use it to justify British purchases of exorbitantly priced US armament systems and to justify hosting some of America’s top foreign-based electronic spying facilities.

    Yorkshire, for example, used to be known for its sheep, beer, coal mines and writers of romantic novels. It now plays host to one of the NSA’s most intrusive electronic data collection sites, which is only one of such sites in the UK.

    Neither Mr. Cameron nor Mr. Obama consider their political relationship to be special, except as a trope to further other ends. If either country had believed that their relationship was special, then had the US refused to deliver vital intel about an imminent terrorist attack, there would have been hell to pay on both sides of the Pond. Naturally, it would have also signaled to any sentient politician that their relationship was grossly, criminally dysfunctional.

  8. emptywheel says:

    @Z: I think the US is withholding stuff we don’t consider of any import. Later in the article they say we’re withholding some of the loot from OBL’s compound. Most of that is aspirational.

  9. GKJames says:

    Z on: To your point, the claim doesn’t make sense at the most basic level. Problematic for the security apparatus was the disclosure of evidence of torture, not evidence of al-Quaeda plotting. How the assertion that the CIA “withheld detailed information … that al-Qaeda was planning an attack” relates to concerns about British courts is a mystery.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I think that’s known as the strut loudly and carry a big stick form of diplomacy. To adherents of that “strategy”, relatedness, consistency and rationality are not prerequisites. To them, the restrained use of power is a non sequitur and a contradiction in terms. That such a strategy is also self-defeating in achieving stated ends, beyond its utility as a justification for greater expenditures on war and for curtailing civil liberties at home, seems to be an intentional outcome.

  11. Z says:

    @GKJames:

    Not entirely sure what you mean.

    If you are saying that the u.s.’s supposed threat to withhold intelligence from the british government has no affect on the british courts (who were the ones that ordered cameron to release information about u.s. torture); you are probably right, but that’s not what I was getting at. cameron also has domestic political vulnerabilities in being portrayed as the u.s.’s lap dog. His claims that he was basically forced to make the choice between giving out information regarding the torture of mohamed while also compromising his government’s ability to protect british citizens OR to conceal that information becoz it is in britain’s best interests give him some political cover.

    Z

  12. Z says:

    @emptywheel:

    That makes sense: that the u.s. is withholding information that they don’t consider to be of any import … basically giving some substance to what is primarily a token threat … but I still think that it’s unwise for cameron to go public with that becoz in the future it could lead to accusations that the u.s. withheld important information that could have prevented a successful terrorist attack.

    Z

  13. joanneleon says:

    This is probably way out there, but I wonder if there is any Julian Assange pressure mixed up in this. Pressure to get him over here (via Sweden), I mean.

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