In the United States, the Obama Administration in 2009 claimed it would not pursue torture investigations because that would be looking backward and distract the country from moving forward. Many on the left, including me and Nate at this blog, basically thought this was a rather absurd claim and a damaging decision. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron, elected in May and heading a coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat cabinet, is taking the opposite approach:
Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday that Britain’s new coalition government would appoint an independent inquiry into allegations that its security services, MI5 and MI6, colluded with the Central Intelligence Agency and other foreign organizations in the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects held in foreign prisons after the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Cameron had called for the inquiry before the spring election campaign against the former Labour government, which had endured years of criticism at home for being too cozy with the Bush administration in the reaction to terrorism.
“While there is no evidence that any British officer was directly engaged in torture in the aftermath of 9/11, there are questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done,” Mr. Cameron said. He said this had “led to accusations that Britain may have been complicit in the mistreatment of detainees.”
Under the Labour government, MI5, responsible for Britain’s internal security, and MI6, responsible for external security, issued strong denials that their agents were complicit in mistreatment. The agencies received vigorous backing from the government, at least until court disclosures began to show that the detainees’ allegations against them might have had some validity.
Certainly there will be complaints because this won’t be a particularly transparent investigation for security and international intelligence reasons, but it’s way better than the total lack of investigations we got in the United States. That was mainly a nakedly political decision, anyway. Cameron is also certainly taking politics into account, but he’s decided that in any case this will be a better and faster route to ending the speculation and criticisms dogging the British intelligence services. That’s the practical side. The moral side happens to be in the same general direction, unlike the Obama calculus.
Of course, Cameron has little to lose by this, and potentially much to gain. Obama faced an insane, pro-torture right-wing faction and pro-torture media in America, which explains some of his reticence. But he also somehow believed (or his advisers did) that he could get Republican support for some of his agenda by not investigating their Bush era buddies over torture. That didn’t happen. So Obama didn’t gain much practically speaking either.
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.