LONDON — Facing a furor in Parliament, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband all but confirmed on Thursday that the U.S. had threatened to break off intelligence sharing if details were revealed about the alleged torture of a British resident held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
While disputing there was any direct threat, Miliband quoted U.S. officials as saying that release of classified documents in London court hearings "could harm existing intelligence information-sharing between our two governments."
The U.S. embassy disputed that there had been any threat of a cut-off of vital intelligence, stating that: "We do not threaten allies." A spokesman said President Barack Obama is committed to closing Guantanamo and treating prisoners humanely, but added: "I don't think the position on the confidentiality principle will change."
The case involves Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident who alleged that he was tortured in a Moroccan prison after being "rendered" to Moroccan authorities by the U.S. government.
Never miss a local story.
In a rebuke to the U.S., two British high court judges said Wednesday that Washington had blocked the release of evidence that was "relevant to allegations of torture" of Mohamed. Lord Justice Thomas and Justice Lloyd Jones said the documents in question was "politically embarrassing" but didn't contain sensitive intelligence about Mohamed's treatment.
Miliband's statement also indicated that the U.S. continues to refuse to provide the classified documents to lawyers for the detainee. He said Britain had "worked to ensure" that all potentially helpful but highly classified U.S. documents are released to his lawyers, implying that British government efforts had not yet succeeded.
Clive Stafford-Smith, a member of Mohamed's legal team and a director of the British human-rights group Reprieve, said Thursday that he believes U.S. officials still have an "enormous" amount of information relevant to Mohamed's defense that they aren't releasing.
The case has been under discussion between London and Washington — involving both governments and courts. Although most of the proceedings occurred under the Bush administration, the case could provide a first test of Obama's commitment to more transparency in dealing with the hundreds of detainees still held at Guantanamo.
After a U.S. military commission case against Mohamed was dismissed, his British-based legal team asked a U.S. court to order release of any evidence that justified Mohamed's legal detention. A U.S. District court in Washington issued that order in October, but Stafford-Smith says the U.S. hasn't complied.
Only pressure from the British government led to the sharing of classified U.S. documents with the defense team, the attorney said. Despite U.S. claims to the contrary, Stafford-Smith said when he saw the documents, he found "they were incredibly exculpatory" for Mohamed.
Stafford-Smith charged, however, that the American government "has never willingly turned over anything that was exculpatory." As an example, he said the U.S. had never acknowledged that Mohamed had been held in Morocco, even though the defense team had obtained CIA flight logs to prove it.
Milliband said he discussed the case with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington earlier this week, but told Parliament that he wouldn't lobby the administration on the case. "Their decisions are for them," he said.
Mohamed, now 30, was born in Ethiopia and moved to Britain at age 16. After converting to Islam, he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan. U.S. officials have claimed that he fought alongside Taliban forces and later was selected by al Qaida for training. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 as he tried to board a flight to London.
Through his British lawyer, Mohamed is seeking the release of dozens of classified documents about his treatment from 2002 to 2004, when he was held in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco and Guantanamo. He's been held at the military prison since 2004, but has not been charged by the Americans and is due to be released.
Particularly embarrassing for Britain are Mohamed's claims that British agencies were complicit in his torture.
The British government's handling of the incident came under scathing criticism in Thursday's debate.
"There is no other term for what the U.S. intelligence services are doing than blackmail," said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. "If British ministers were complicit in any way in the use of torture, or helped the U.S. authorities to cover it up, they could face consequences in the International Criminal Court. The seriousness of these allegations cannot be overstated."
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY