The UK government is secretly trying to stifle attempts by members of parliament (MPs) to find out what it knows about CIA "torture flights'' and privately admits that people captured by UK forces could have been sent illegally to interrogation centers, the Guardian newspaper has revealed.
A hidden strategy aimed at suppressing a debate about rendition -- the US practice of transporting detainees to secret centers where they are at risk of being tortured -- is revealed in a briefing paper sent by the UK Foreign Office to the British prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street.
The document shows that the UK government has been aware of secret interrogation centers, despite ministers' denials. It admits that the government has no idea whether individuals seized by UK troops in Iraq or Afghanistan have been sent to the secret centers.
Dated Dec. 7 last year, the document is a note from Irfan Siddiq, of the foreign secretary's private office, to Grace Cassy in UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's office. It was obtained by the New Statesman magazine, whose latest issue was published yesterday.
It was drawn up in response to a Downing Street request for advice "on substance and handling'' of the controversy over CIA rendition flights and allegations of the UK's connivance in the practice.
"We should try to avoid getting drawn on detail,'' Siddiq writes, "and to try to move the debate on, in as front foot a way we can, underlining all the time the strong anti-terrorist rationale for close cooperation with the US, within our legal obligations.''
The document advises the government to rely on a statement by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month when she said the US did not transport anyone to a country where it believed they would be tortured and that "where appropriate'' Washington would seek assurances.
The document notes: "We would not want to cast doubt on the principle of such government-to-government assurances, not least given our own attempts to secure these from countries to which we wish to deport their nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism: Algeria etc.''
The document says that in the most common use of the term -- namely, involving real risk of torture -- rendition could never be legal. It also says that the US emphasized torture but not "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment'', which binds the UK under the European convention on human rights. UK courts have adopted a lower threshold of what constitutes torture than the US has.
The note includes questions and answers on a number of issues. "Would cooperating with a US rendition operation be illegal?'', it asks, and gives the response: "Where we have no knowledge of illegality but allegations are brought to our attention, we ought to make reasonable enquiries.''
It asks: "How do we know whether those our armed forces have helped to capture in Iraq or Afghanistan have subsequently been sent to interrogation centers?''
The reply given is: "Cabinet Office is researching this with MoD [Ministry of Defence]. But we understand the basic answer is that we have no mechanism for establishing this, though we would not ourselves question such detainees while they were in such facilities.''
Ministers have taken the line, in answers to MPs' questions, that they were unaware of CIA rendition flights passing through the UK or of secret interrogation centers.