Gitmo Inmates Settlement: Why Britain Decided to Pay

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Stefan Wermuth / Files / Reuters

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed is seen leaving Portcullis House after a news conference, in London in this August 17, 2009 file photograph

There is always a price to be paid for keeping secret intelligence secret. On Tuesday, the British government paid it by agreeing on a compensation settlement with 16 Guantánamo Bay detainees — all but one who are now free — who claim they were tortured during their time in captivity. And according to speculation by the British media, that price — which is confidential — is anywhere between £5 million ($8 million) and £10 million ($15 million), with at least one of the alleged victims set to be made a millionaire as a result. But that hefty sum also buys the U.K. the guarantee of confidentiality in its controversial dealings with Guantánamo prisoners — and may even have avoided a rift with U.S. Intelligence agencies.

Few were surprised by the news of the payment. After the previous Labour government's failed attempts to stop sensitive intelligence from U.K. and U.S. agencies being disclosed in court during cases brought by the detainees, it was likely that the current coalition would go for a settlement instead — Prime Minister David Cameron announced in July that there would be a full inquiry into the allegations, probably to start by the end of the year, once all legal proceedings had ended. In February, an appeals court ordered the release of CIA information held by MI5 and MI6 relating to one detainee, Binyam Mohamed, who claims he was tortured before being flown to Guantánamo Bay.

Mohamed, a British resident held at the prison from 2004 until last year, was first arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and handed over to the U.S. before being moved to Morocco and then Afghanistan on his way to Guantánamo. He claims he was abused in Pakistan under the supervision of U.S. agents and tortured after being "rendered" to Morocco, where he also alleges Britain's MI5 fed questions to his Moroccan interrogators via the CIA.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told parliament on Tuesday: "The alternative to any payments made would have been protracted and extremely expensive litigation in an uncertain legal environment in which the government could not be certain that it would be able to defend security and intelligence agencies without compromising national security." He added that no admission of culpability had been made. Whitehall sources have estimated the cost to the government of continuing to fight the court cases — which were launched in 2008 — could have amounted to some £30 million ($50 million).

In the short term, the alleged potential damage to the security services' operational secrecy and reputation posed by the release of thousands of secret documents has been averted. Labour's former Foreign Secretary David Miliband stressed at the time of the original court appeal in February that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned that security cooperation between the two countries would be harmed if the information provided to Britain in secret were made public by the court.

In the longer term, ministers now plan to introduce a law ensuring such information will in future only be seen in secret hearings and not shown to interested parties and their lawyers. And the settlement has cleared one of the last obstacles to a full judicial inquiry into the torture allegations and Britain's role in the extraordinary rendition of suspects — with some alleging that the U.K. sometimes acted as a refueling stopover for U.S. security services moving suspects to other countries for torture.

But Britain's move has also strengthened demands for the U.S. to allow judicial scrutiny of torture allegations against its own intelligence services. So far, the U.S. courts have rejected all attempts on the grounds that government agencies and officials have immunity from such civil lawsuits, as well as on national security grounds.

"The Obama Administration continues to shield Bush-era torturers from accountability in civil proceedings by blocking judicial review of their illegal behavior," said Steven Watt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement on Tuesday. "To date, not a single victim of the Bush Administration's torture program has had his day in a U.S. court. The U.S. can no longer stand silently by as other nations reckon with their own agents' complicity in the torture program."

In the U.K. there was some consternation over the payouts, with Labour MP Ian Austin complaining in parliament that the detainees are getting "more money than victims of terrorism here in London." Compensation for victims of the July 7, 2005 bombings — which so far has reached £11 million ($18 million) — is capped at a maximum of £500,000 ($800,000) per person.

But others, including many in the opposition Labour party, seemed resigned to the fact that the decision had followed a hard-headed and realistic assessment of the relative damage that would be caused by the two available courses of action: fight through open court or execute a tactical retreat. "No one likes this outcome but it was probably the lesser of two evils and the government did what it had to," says one senior Labour backbencher, who asked not to be named.

Having paid a heavy price, ministers will now be hoping that the majority will agree and a line can finally be drawn over this most damaging of affairs.