NYT Published: February 14, 2010There are times when governments fight to keep documents secret to protect sensitive intelligence or other vital national security interests. And there are times when they are just trying to cover up incompetence, misbehavior or lawbreaking.
Last week, when a British court released secret intelligence material relating to the torture allegations of a former Guantánamo prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, it was clear that the second motive had been in play when both the Bush and the Obama administrations and some high-ranking British officials tried to prevent the disclosure.
Mr. Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident, is a victim of President George W. Bush’s extraordinary rendition program, under which foreigners were kidnapped and flown to other countries for interrogation and torture. He was subjected to physical and psychological abuse in Pakistan, Morocco and a C.I.A.-run prison outside Kabul before being sent to Guantánamo. His seven-year ordeal ended when he was freed last February.
At issue in the British court were seven paragraphs derived from American intelligence documents. The Bush administration claimed the material contained top-secret information and threatened to cut off intelligence sharing with Britain if it was released. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated those threats, despite President Obama’s campaign promises of openness and the rule of law in his detainee policy.
The paragraphs contained no real secrets. Mainly, the document — a summary of information that American intelligence provided to Britain’s security service, MI5 — echoes previous disclosures by the C.I.A. and Mr. Mohamed’s harrowing account of his ordeal.
But what it does contain is the assessment by British intelligence that his treatment violated legal prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners.
A spokesman for President Obama expressed “deep disappointment” in the court’s decision, which might have been shocking except that Mr. Obama has refused to support any real investigation of Mr. Bush’s lawless detention policies. His lawyers have tried to shut down court cases filed by victims of those policies, with the same extravagant claims of state secrets and executive power that Mr. Bush made.
The full Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing the Justice Department’s attempt to shut down a civil lawsuit brought by Mr. Mohamed and four others — on a flimsy national security claim that has been rendered even flimsier by the British court.
Then there is the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was seized at Kennedy Airport by federal agents acting on bad information. After being harshly interrogated, he was sent to Syria, where he was tortured. In November, Mr. Arar’s civil suit was dismissed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which essentially bought the Bush administration’s bogus national security claims, extended under Mr. Obama. Mr. Arar has appealed to the Supreme Court. Rather than fight, the Obama administration should offer an apology and a monetary settlement like Canada did three years ago.
It has always been true that a real accounting of the Bush administration’s abuses is vital if Mr. Obama truly wants to repair them and try to prevent them from recurring. It is more important than ever now, when the Republican right is trying hard to turn the clock back to those dark times by painting Democrats as “soft on terror” during an election year.