The CIA’s many critics will prefer to believe that the destruction was motivated by a desire to eliminate evidence.
The recent release from Guantanamo Bay after four years of an Ethiopian, Binyam Mohamed, has resulted in allegations that after his arrest and ‘special rendition’ he was subject to interrogation and torture in Morocco and Pakistan where, he claims, he was also questioned by an MI5 officer.
Mohamed was, at the time of his detention in Afghanistan, lawfully resident in Britain, and he was suspected of complicity in a plot to detonate a ‘dirty bomb’ in the United States.
Mohamed’s MI5 file was passed to the attorney-general, Baroness Scotland, last November, and she now has to decide what action, if any should be taken. Among her options is a full-scale police enquiry into MI5’s complicity in torture, and perhaps allegations of other offences.
Upon his arrival back in England in February Mohamed was released, but doubtless remains under discreet surveillance. Potentially at stake is the quality of international cooperation which has to be balanced against the rights of an individual, even if he is deemed to have been an exceptionally dangerous terrorist suspect.
Of course, there remains a recognition that allegations of torture are part of the al-Qaida playbook. Any attempt to undermine the west’s resolve or inhibit the activities of counter-terrorism organisations is welcomed and supported by the terrorist who may have no other tactic to fall back on.
Unfortunately, after the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, it can be argued that such charges can have credence.
However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the casual, gratuitous maltreatment of prisoners, as happened in Baghdad when untrained soldiers were placed in charge of the capital’s prison, and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which has only happened on three occasions since 2001.
While the former is deplorable and counter-productive, and certainly did great damage to the Coalition, giving a propaganda coup to the insurgents, the water-boarding of committed terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed offered very tangible intelligence benefits.
Coinciding with Binyam’s allegations is the admission by the CIA that 92 video tapes which recorded individual interrogations, have been destroyed to preserve the anonymity of the personnel involved.
Critics have placed a sinister interpretation on this disclosure, but retention of the tapes would have had no value once the transcription process had been completed. Indeed, as the CIA obviously recognised, their very existence placed their staff in some potential jeopardy, so they were erased.
The trouble is, the CIA’s many critics simply will not accept that rather obvious explanation and will prefer to believe that the destruction was motivated by a desire to eliminate potentially incriminating evidence.