Monday, February 15, 2010

American spy chiefs alarmed by Binyam Mohamed ruling

American spy chiefs alarmed by Binyam Mohamed ruling

US intelligence sources are concerned that a British court's ruling on secret CIA interrogation records could affect the flow of information.

By Philip Sherwell in New York and William Lowther in Washington
Published: 8:00AM GMT 14 Feb 2010

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed Photo: REUTERS

Alarmed US spy chiefs are seeking urgent assurances from British counterparts that intelligence they share on terror threats will remain classified after a London court authorised the release of secret CIA interrogation records.

British officials have been asked to explain the impact of the Court of Appeal ruling amid fears in the US that Britain can no longer be trusted with secrets crucial to the two country's national security.

The Government lost a lengthy legal battle last week to prevent publications of a CIA summary of how former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, a British resident before he travelled to Afghanistan, was beaten and shackled in US custody.

The White House, State Department and US intelligence had previously issued unusually outspoken warnings at the highest level that the release would cause major damage. And within hours, American officials were reviewing how they collect and share intelligence with their closest ally, The Sunday Telegraph has learned.

"UK intelligence has been asked to provide an interpretation of the court ruling," said a senior US intelligence officer who works closely with British agents. "That includes how it might change the previous understanding which amounted to complete classification for all intelligence provided to Britain. This case will clearly have an impact on co-operation."

Most intelligence passed from the US to Britain is "technical", arising from satellites or electronic eavesdropping. The US is understood to be looking for assurances that these top-secret sources will never be revealed.

There is particular concern that the ruling will set a dangerous legal precedent and that US intelligence about terror suspects will be made public if they end up in British courts in the future.

"This sort of ruling is the intelligence community's worst nightmare," Fred Burton, a former top US counter-terrorism agent who is now vice-president of Stratfor, the global intelligence company, told The Sunday Telegraph.

"Under protected channels, you have highly classified information passing from state to state every day. The risk of disclosure of that information will clearly disrupt intelligence and could compromise human assets and methods.

"Our ties to the British are so close and so strong that I am sure our relationship with our most trusted partner will not be seriously damaged. But the ruling clearly raises major concerns."

Current and former US intelligence officials insisted that the relationship with their British allies would remain strong, built both on long-standing links and personal rapport. But the ruling is another blow to a once "special relationship" that has already stagnated under the administration of President Barack Obama.

Indeed, the White House, under fire domestically for its counter-terrorism policies, made clear its anger over a court ruling which it said would force a review of intelligence-sharing with Britain.

"We're deeply disappointed… because we shared this information in confidence and with certain expectations," said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.

"As we warned, the court's judgment will complicate the confidentiality of our intelligence-sharing relationship with the UK, and it will have to factor into our decision-making going forward."

But he also affirmed US commitment to the transatlantic ties. "This just means that we need to redouble our efforts to work through this challenge, because the UK remains a key partner in our collective efforts to suppress terrorism and other threats to our national security," he said.

Congressman Pete Hoekstra, the leading Republican on the House intelligence committee which receives regular classified briefings by spy chiefs, said the US now faced "road bumps" in its dealings with Britain.

"We are going to have to evaluate the implications of this decision," he said. "We must hope this is an isolated case as our relationship with the British is so valuable.

"It would be a real problem if this became a trend where highly sensitive information was being forced out into the open by the courts. That would jeopardise the US-UK relationship, which would be devastating as we co-operate, co-ordinate and complement each other on intelligence so well."

Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for Mr Mohamed and dozens of other current and former Guantanamo detainees, fiercely criticised "the shameful way" Britain had tried to suppress details of his clients alleged torture under pressure from Washington.

"Suppressing any evidence of government criminality on the grounds of national security sets a very dangerous precedent," he said.

But in a rare public statement, Jonathan Evans, the M15 director, expressed his concerns about the fall-out. "The US in particular has been generous in sharing intelligence with us on terrorist threats; that has saved British lives and must be protected," he wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "We must hope for our own safety and security, that this does not make them less ready to share intelligence with us in future."

Dennis Blair, the US Director of National Intelligence appointed by President Barack Obama, added his criticism. "The protection of confidential information is essential to strong, effective security and intelligence cooperation among allies," he said. "The decision by a United Kingdom court to release classified information provided by the United States is not helpful, and we deeply regret it."

The court ruling, coming on the heels of the British arrest warrant issued in December for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni for alleged war crimes in Gaza, has created another concern for some US agents involved in interrogating terror suspects under the Bush administration.

"They're wondering now if a British court might try to have them arrested for alleged torture in a crackdown for what was done on the last guy's watch," said Dan Goure, a national security analyst with close ties to the intelligence community.

He also believed, however, that the UK-US intelligence relationship would survive the challenge. "Are we going to refuse to share intelligence with you because we can't trust you? No, you're not the French," he said.

Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010


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