As the US prepares for the publication of a report examining the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11, the UK is among several close allies thought to be concerned that it will shed new and disturbing light on their role in the so-called rendition programme.
After a six-year examination of CIA documents, the Senate intelligence committee will on Tuesday release a 480-page summary of its 6,200-page report on the way in which the agency mistreated al-Qaida suspects held in secret prisons in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
One highly detailed but unofficial investigation concluded last year that the programme was assisted by 54 countries worldwide, 25 of them in Europe.
The summary of the Senate committee’s report has been redacted in consultation with the CIA, but according to recent media reports, the committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, has won a victory by retaining within it significant amounts of information about the activities of US allies. While those countries’ roles are expected to be detailed, they are expected to be anonymised.
The UK government, which has never permitted an effective domestic inquiry into its involvement in the CIA’s global kidnap and torture operation to run its full course, appears to have good reason to be concerned about some of the material that may lie within the committee’s report.
In 2004, for example, MI6 engaged in at least two rendition operations alongside the CIA, resulting in a pair of Libyan dissidents being abducted with their wives and children, aged between six and 12, and flown to Muammar Gaddafi’s prisons. One of the wives, who was pregnant, says she was bound head-to-foot with tape to a stretcher for the 17-hour flight.
Furthermore, British intelligence officers interrogated detainees held at Guantánamo Bay and at Bagram in Afghanistan, despite being aware they were being mistreated, and the UK government provided logistical support for aircraft in rendition operations, allowing them to refuel at British civilian and military airports on hundreds of occasions.
At least two detainees were flown via Diego Garcia, which is British territory.
The full extent of the UK’s involvement in the rendition programme remains unclear however. Last year, the government shelved an official inquiry, but not before the judge in charge said that there were 27 areas in which questions about the UK’s involvement in rendition and mistreatment of detainees remained unanswered.
That inquiry will now be handled by the intelligence and security committee, a body of MPs and peers which concluded in 2007 that the UK was not complicit in rendition, only to be flatly contradicted by a high court ruling the following year.
Meanwhile, a Scotland Yard investigation into the Libyan rendition operations, codenamed Operation Lydd, has been under way for almost three years. The Crown Prosecution Service is considering a file of evidence.
While the Senate committee was conducting its examination of the CIA’s secret documents, the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Peter Westmacott, met Feinstein and other members of her committee on at least 11 occasions over two years. His predecessor held a similar number of meetings over three years.
The Foreign Office has not disclosed anything about the agendas of the meetings.
But last July William Hague, then foreign secretary, confirmed that the report’s contents were of concern, and that the Foreign Office expected the committee to observe the so-called control principle, which allows the UK to determine whether British intelligence material passed to the US should be made public. In a letter to the human rights group Reprieve, Hague wrote: “The UK government has not sought to influence the content of the Senate report.
“We have made representations to seek assurance that ordinary procedures for clearance of UK material will be followed in any event that UK material provide [sic] to the Senate committee were to be disclosed.”
The UK is far from alone in awaiting publication of the report with some anxiety.
Last week secretary of state John Kerry is said to have warned Feinstein that publication of her committee’s report could result in violence and endanger US nationals held hostage by terrorists, in a telephone call made shortly after he met the newly appointed Polish foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna.
In July, the European court of human rights ruled that the Polish government had allowed the CIA to run a secret prison at Stare Kiejkuty in the north of the country at which two terrorism suspects were tortured.
Court proceedings and official inquiries have also found that Italy, Sweden and Macedonia were involved in the CIA’s rendition programme, while Lithuania and Romania are facing proceedings before the European court.