Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government has agreed to investigate torture allegations made by former Guantanamo detainees. The inquiry is expected to last one year. And, according to Cameron, it will look into claims that British officials knew of “improper treatment of detainees held by other countries in counterterrorism operations overseas, or were aware of improper treatment of detainees in operations in which the UK was involved.”
But before the inquiry even gets underway, Cameron’s government is probably going to pay the former Gitmo detainees cash settlements. Why?
The Sun (UK) offers a forthright assessment: The former detainees and their lawyers have buried British intelligence in paper.
“Our services are paralysed by paperwork as they try to defend themselves in lengthy court cases with uncertain rules,” Cameron is quoted as saying. “We cannot have their work impeded by these allegations.”
The Sun says the former detainees are suing British officials for “up to £500,000 each” and Cameron’s government has “been left with little choice but to settle with the men - once feared to have been some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.”
In other words, the former detainees and their lawyers have already won, which isn’t altogether surprising.
For years, former detainees and their lawyers have spun stories of abuse and torture where there is absolutely no evidence of either. Consider the case of Moazzam Begg, one of the former Gitmo detainees living in the UK who stands to receive a hefty cash settlement. Begg’s claims are frequently repeated by organizations like the ACLU and Amnesty International. (For more on Begg see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Begg’s allegations have been investigated – repeatedly – before, and no evidence has surfaced to support his claims. The British surely know this.
The story is laid out in detail in a report prepared by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The report is titled “A Review of the FBI’s Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq” and is freely available online. (You can download the pdf here.) The section dealing with Moazzam Begg’s claims can be found on pages 266 through 276.
Begg’s allegations were first investigated years ago. On page 268, the OIG found (emphasis added):
According to an undated letter from the United States Principal Undersecretary of Defense to the British Embassy, the Department of Defense (DOD) conducted three investigations of Begg’s allegations of abuse and found no evidence to substantiate his claims. The DOD provided the OIG with a Report of Investigation prepared by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command dated July 23, 2005. According to this report, the Army reviewed correspondence and statements by Begg and interviewed over 30 witnesses who were stationed at the facilities at which Begg claimed the abuses occurred. The report concluded that “the offenses of Communicating at Threat, Maltreatment of a Person in U.S. Custody, and Assault did not occur as alleged.” Many of the witnesses interviewed by the Army investigators said that Begg cooperated with military interrogators by assisting with translations, that Begg received comforts such as reading and writing materials, and that Begg never complained about mistreatment while he was at Bagram.
So, the British were informed that the DOD had investigated Begg’s claims – three times – and found no corroborating evidence. Many of the 30 witnesses interviewed said that, far from being roughed up, Begg cooperated with interrogators and earned comforts for doing so.
The FBI’s men had the same experience with Begg. An FBI team used rapport building techniques to get Begg to talk. And talk he did.
In the following paragraphs from the OIG’s report (see pages 275 and 276), “Bell” is a pseudonym for a FBI special agent, while “Harrelson” is a pseudonym for a NYPD detective who was assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Bell and Harrelson were tasked with getting Begg to sign a confession (emphasis added):
The OIG reviewed a copy of Begg’s signed statement dated February 13, 2003. The statement is eight single-spaced pages, signed by Begg, Bell, Harrelson, and two DOD Criminal Investigative Division agents. Begg’s signed statement indicates, among other things, that Begg sympathized with the cause of al-Qaeda, attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and England so that he could assist in waging global jihad against enemies of Islam, including Russia and India; associated with and assisted several prominent terrorists and supporters of terrorists and discussed potential terrorist acts with them; recruited young operatives for the global jihad; and provided financial support for terrorist training camps.
Notations that appear to be Begg’s hand-written initials appear at the beginning and end of each paragraph of the statement. The statement also has additions and deletions that are also initialed. These included both minor and substantive changes. For example, on the first page Begg apparently corrected the spelling of one of his aliases, changed “handguns” to “handgun,” and deleted “hand” in front of “grenades.” On page 3, Begg apparently changed the statement “I am unsure of the exact amount of money sent to terrorist training camps of the many years I helped fund the camps,” by replacing the word “many” with the words “couple of.” On page 4, he added the following sentence apparently for purposes of explanation for his conduct: “This was to help the Kurds in Iraq.”
Begg’s signed confession was potentially a big problem for him. Begg was scheduled to be the first detainee brought before a military commission at Gitmo. His signed confession would have gone a long way towards convicting him. This made abuse claims a vital part of the defense. As another FBI agent explained to the OIG, Begg’s complaints were “an attempt to distance himself from the written statement that he had given and to minimize it.”
But the Bush administration decided to transfer Begg to the UK instead of bringing him before a commission. That move, which various U.S. government agencies objected to, was likely a favor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The UK government has repeatedly lobbied for the transfer of Gitmo detainees who are either British citizens or residents – there is no better way to appease the detainees’ loud advocates.
The OIG did not buy Begg’s story about his confession being coerced. It is worth quoting the OIG’s report at length once again. From page 276 (emphasis added):
If true, Begg’s allegations concerning how his statement was obtained would potentially violate the FBI’s prohibition against using threats to coerce a confession. However, the OIG did not find sufficient evidence to support Begg’s allegations. The statement itself with the additions and deletions initialed by Begg support its voluntariness. In addition, even after making the statement Begg continued to cooperate with the FBI, according to the FBI agent who met with him later.
Furthermore, we found that Bell’s denial that he threatened Begg in order to get him to sign the statement was credible because such conduct could have undermined Bell’s long-term strategy of building rapport with Begg to obtain his cooperation for other prosecutions. Begg even acknowledged that Bell and Harrelson had mentioned the possibility of a plea bargain, witness protection, and cooperation with the government. Therefore, we concluded that the evidence did not support the allegation that they coerced Begg into signing the statement.
The Defense Department investigated Begg’s claims three times. The Justice Department did as well. No evidence has surfaced to support Begg’s allegations of abuse.
Apparently that is not enough to stop the UK from investigating Begg’s claims once again. He may even be awarded a significant cash settlement. All he and his lawyers had to do was bury the UK government in paper.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.