By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 22, 2008
LONDON, Feb. 21 -- U.S. and British officials disclosed Thursday that two U.S. "extraordinary rendition" flights carrying terrorism suspects refueled on U.K. territory in the Indian Ocean in 2002, despite repeated denials by both governments that clandestine CIA flights had ever used British airspace or territory.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed "disappointment" that the United States notified the British government of the flights just last week and called it a "very serious issue." Officials from both governments said the flights came to light after a recent review of records by U.S. officials.
British officials have long denied any involvement in the CIA's rendition program, in which terror suspects have been secretly flown for interrogation to countries where torture is often used by government security services.
Although Britain has been a close ally of the United States in Iraq and in the wider "war on terror," Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair, have distanced themselves from a CIA program that has been broadly criticized in Europe.
Foreign Minister David Miliband first disclosed the flights in Parliament on Thursday, saying he was "very sorry indeed" to have to correct previous denials by Blair and other top British officials.
Miliband said Britain learned last week that two flights, each carrying a single terror suspect, had landed at Diego Garcia, a British atoll in the Indian Ocean that British and U.S. forces use for military operations. Human rights activists have long suspected that Diego Garcia hosted one of the CIA's secret prisons for terror suspects.
Miliband said neither of the two suspects was a British citizen or resident. He also said that one was now being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that the other had been released.
Miliband said he believed U.S. officials had acted in "good faith" and had not intentionally misled Britain. He said he discussed the matter Wednesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We both agree that the mistakes made in these two cases are not acceptable, and she shares my deep regret that this information has only just come to light," he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed Thursday that Rice telephoned Miliband to express U.S. regret over the "administrative error."
"We came up with fresh information that in short order we shared with the British government," he told reporters. "We regret that there was an error in providing initially that inaccurate information to a good friend and ally."
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden issued a statement saying that information supplied to Britain "in good faith" had "turned out to be wrong."
"That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British Government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong," he said.
Hayden said neither terror suspect was a part of the CIA's "high-value terrorist interrogation program."
"These were rendition operations, nothing more," Hayden said. "There has been speculation in the press over the years that CIA had a holding facility on Diego Garcia. That is false. There have also been allegations that we transport detainees for the purpose of torture. That, too, is false."
Miliband said his staff would compile a list of flights that human rights groups suspect were used for rendition, then forward it to officials in Washington "seeking their specific assurance that none of these flights were used" for rendition.
Opposition politicians in Britain said the case undermined the credibility of the Blair and Brown governments, as well as the United States. Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, called the incident "a gross embarrassment" for the British government.
Andrew Tyrie, a Conservative Party politician who leads the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, said in a statement that the matter "will leave the British public unwilling to trust other assurances we have received from the U.S."