U.K. minister 'lied over CIA flights'

By HANNAH K. STRANGE, UPI U.K. Correspondent   |   Dec. 19, 2005 at 2:09 PM
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LONDON, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- The British Foreign Office privately accepts that CIA rendition flights did pass through its territory, a diplomatic source told United Press International.

The well-placed source said the Foreign Office "totally accepts" that the United States used British airfields to transfer prisoners abroad for interrogation, and is "extremely worried" about the political consequences.

The revelation comes amid growing signs of divergence between London and Washington over the way in which the war on terror should be conducted.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair learnt in April 2003 that the United States had bombed a Baghdad hotel in which several media organizations were housed, killing three journalists, he "literally jumped out of his chair," the source told UPI. The Foreign Office was "horrified," considering the attack to be "obscene," the source said.

London took the same attitude towards a U.S. suggestion that it would attack the Qatar headquarters of the Arabic language television al-Jazeera, the source said.

Foreign Office officials threatened to resign if the Americans went ahead with the attacks, revealed in a Downing Street memo leaked to the British media earlier this year.

Blair reportedly talked U.S. President George W. Bush out of the attacks, warning it could fuel a worldwide backlash. The Mirror newspaper quoted a source as saying: "There's no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it."

The government has threatened newspaper editors with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if they publish further details of the memo.

Ministers appear desperate to dispel any signs of a rift between London and Washington over methods used in the "war on terror."

The revelation that the Foreign Office accepts that CIA rendition flights passed through Britain comes in direct contrast to official denials by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who last week "categorically" denied that any such flights had taken place.

He told the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday: "Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories, that officials are lying, that I'm lying ... that Secretary Rice (U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) is lying, there is simply no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition."

However, the source told UPI that although the Foreign Office had not known of the CIA rendition flights at the time, it was now aware that it should have known.

Ministers were "extremely worried" about the issue, the source said. Both Downing Street and the Foreign Office were simply "hoping it is going to go away."

It is alleged some 210 flights operated by the CIA have passed through Britain since September 2001. Human rights groups say many of the flights were carrying prisoners to secret facilities abroad for interrogation using torture. The United States has acknowledged the practice of rendition but insists its personnel do not practice torture.

Last week the European Parliament approved a full investigation into allegations that the CIA used European territory for renditions and for the secret detention of terror suspects, after the EU's human rights watchdog reported that the claims were "credible."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assurance during her recent European tour that U.S. interrogators were barred from practicing torture at home or overseas was greeted with skepticism by critics of the rendition policy. However, her references to prohibitions on such treatment under the United Nations Convention Against Torture were hailed as a shift in the position of the United States, which has in the past contended that such conventions do not apply to "illegal enemy combatants" detained as part of the war on terror.

Likewise, President Bush has significantly changed his tone on the Iraq conflict in the past week. Addressing Americans from the Oval Office Sunday, he acknowledged the difficult road ahead and that more U.S. lives would be sacrificed in the effort to bring peace and stability to the country.

In a speech widely hailed as far more humble in tone than his usual offerings, Bush admitted that much of the intelligence justifying the decision to go to war in Iraq had been "wrong," and that as president he was responsible for that decision. It had been "controversial" and "deeply" opposed by some Americans, he said.

The president acknowledged the war had brought "sorrow" to the American people, and led some to ask "if we are creating more problems than we're solving."

The war had been "more difficult than we expected," he continued, but added: "In all three aspects of our strategy -- security, democracy, and reconstruction -- we have learned from our experiences, and fixed what has not worked. We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission."

After some serious differences, Britain and the United States appear to be once again moving towards a common viewpoint on the best strategy to bring peace and stability to Iraq. The transatlantic allies apparently agree on the need to scale down the coalition presence in the country, and hand security responsibilities over to Iraqi forces as soon as possible. Bush's new, less belligerent style may indicate a renewed willingness to engage in the "hearts and minds" approach that London has long been pushing for.

In the United States, this change of direction has been reflected by a bounce in Bush's approval ratings -- a Gallup poll conducted Dec. 9-11 indicated that 42 percent of the public approved of the way the president was doing his job, still a minority but an improvement from the 37 percent registered in the same poll the previous month.

But this shift in opinion has not been mirrored across the Atlantic, largely due to the continuing controversy over the CIA flights allegations. The claims have dominated European headlines for weeks, while UPI's new revelations have prompted speculation that the government is more concerned about protecting its allies than upholding the nation's human rights obligations.

The prominent human rights group Liberty has said it will take the British government to court in 2006 if it continues to refuse to investigate the allegations, as is its obligation under international law.

Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti told UPI: "The comments from this well-placed source are of course completely worrying and highlight a contrasting approach between the government and the police, who have agreed to investigate further. Whatever the government hopes, Liberty is not going to go away, and neither will this issue."

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