The UK government on Thursday claimed that the US withheld information from MI5 and MI6 about a possible terrorist plot because they feared British courts would reveal evidence of wrongdoing by foreign intelligence agencies.
According to a story leaked to the Daily Telegraph, the CIA warned Britain’s security and intelligence agencies that al-Qaeda was planning an attack 18 months ago but withheld detailed information. It quoted security sources saying the US move was in retaliation for a decision by UK courts more than two years ago to disclose a brief summary of CIA information.
That information confirmed that Binyam Mohamed, a British resident secretly flown to Guantánamo Bay, had been brutally treated. The CIA information was passed to MI5 and MI6, who fought unsuccessfully to suppress it.
The Telegraph on Thursday described MI6 as being particularly “frustrated” after receiving “only the tip not the intelligence” about an alleged plot in which armed terrorists dressed as civilians were planning an indiscriminate attack on British soil.
The alleged plot was said to have echoes of the Mumbai attack in 2008 in which 174 people were killed.
Government officials talk of the US withholding “little pieces” of intelligence information. They suggest the US move led to unnecessary use of British counter-terrorism resources but concede that the US would never withhold life-threatening intelligence.
Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary on Wednesday defended the “secret justice” proposals drawn up by the government at the behest of MI5, MI6, and the US in the wake of the Mohamed case by suggested that lives could be threatened unless the measures were agreed by Parliament.
Likely to evoke fury
“Open justice cannot be at the expense of lives being lost,” Clarke said.
The leak to the Telegraph looks to have been designed to garner support for the government’s plans, which would mean in future no intelligence information, including evidence of wrongdoing, would ever be disclosed in civil court cases.
Nevertheless, the leak is likely to infuriate MI6 and MI5 as it raises questions about their official policy of never publicly commenting on their work.
Three years ago, high court judges hearing the Mohamed case said the CIA material which the US and UK governments were fighting to suppress “could never properly be described in a democracy as ‘a secret’ or an ‘intelligence secret’ or a ‘summary of classified intelligence'”. Rather, what it revealed was “admissions of what officials of the US did to BM [Mohamed]”.
The judges said it was “impossible to believe” President Obama would take action against the UK if the CIA material was disclosed in summary form. Publication was “necessary to uphold the rule of law and democratic accountability,” the judges continued.
Parliament’s joint human rights committee said on Wednesday that the US appeared to believe that British courts could never stop the disclosure of information that could really damage national security. The US authorities were suffering a “misperception”, the committee said. —