It would be slightly churlish to point out that Mr. Miliband only made his confession because he was shamed into it through the persistent pressure exerted on the government by Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that provides frontline investigation and legal representation to prisoners held without trial in the “War on Terror,” and by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, led by the Tory MP Andrew Tyrie. Last October, Reprieve published a report on the use of Diego Garcia as a secret prison, and the parliamentary group used the Freedom of Information Act to request the minutes of discussions between the British and American governments in Washington last September, which were refused by the British government on the grounds that releasing the information “would prejudice the defence” of territory by “exposing plans to counter possible terrorist attacks.” Just three weeks ago, Mr. Tyrie pledged to appeal against the Foreign Office’s decision, and Mr. Miliband’s confession therefore appears to have been timed to put some distance between the government and its increasingly vocal critics.
There are, however, two simple reasons for not bashing Mr. Miliband too hard: firstly, because any confession, however forced, is better than none at all, and secondly, because it also highlights the evasiveness of other senior government figures -- step forward, former PM Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw -- who maintained between 2005 and 2007 that nothing of the sort had ever happened.
In December 2005, Jack Straw stated, “Careful research by officials has been unable to identify any occasion since 11 September 2001, or earlier in the Bush administration, when we received a request for permission by the United States for a rendition through UK territory or airspace, nor are we otherwise aware of such a case.” Tony Blair followed this up by saying, “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all.”
In January 2006, Mr. Straw repeated his assertions, stating, “The US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace without our permission,” and this was followed in March 2007, when Tony Blair assured the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) that, as the BBC put it, “he was satisfied that the US had at no time since 9/11 rendered an individual through the UK or through our Overseas Territories.”
As a result, the ISC’s Report on Rendition, published on June 28, 2007, stated, “we are satisfied that there is no evidence that US rendition flights have used UK airspace (except the two cases in 1998 referred to earlier in the report) and that there is no evidence of them having landed at UK military airfields,” and Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch Brown asserted in July 2007, “The US authorities have given assurances that no terrorist suspects have passed through Diego Garcia.”
Mr. Miliband, of course, had an explanation for his predecessors’ refusal to engage with the concept that, by facilitating, or even by turning a blind eye to the use of British airspace for “extraordinary rendition” flights transferring “War on Terror” suspects to exotic locations where, on numerous occasions, they were tortured, the British government was itself complicit in torture. He had, he said, only just been informed about it.
“I am very sorry indeed to have to report to the House the need to correct these and other statements on the subject, on the basis of new information passed to officials on 15 February 2008 by the US Government,” Mr. Miliband explained. “Contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia had not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred.” He added, “An error in the earlier US records search meant that these cases did not come to light. In both cases a US plane with a single detainee on board refuelled at the US facility in Diego Garcia. The detainees did not leave the plane, and the US Government has assured us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia. US investigations show no record of any other rendition through Diego Garcia or any other Overseas Territory or through the UK itself since then.”
This is fine as far as it goes, but as I mentioned in October -- the last time that the once tranquil island of Diego Garcia reared its ugly head as a rumoured base for a secret “War on Terror” prison -- this story goes far deeper than profuse apologies for overlooking a twice-used pit-stop for terror planes (see http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2007/10/384112.html).
To give just two examples from my earlier article, “In June 2006, Dick Marty, a Swiss senator who produced a detailed report on ‘extraordinary rendition’ for the Council of Europe … concluded that Diego Garcia had been used as a secret prison. Having spoken to senior CIA officers during his research, he told the European Parliament, ‘We have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the UK, in the “processing” of high-value detainees.'”
Even more compelling evidence came from Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general, who is now professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy. As I described it in October, McCaffrey “has twice let slip that Diego Garcia has, as the administration’s opponents have struggled to maintain, been used to hold terror suspects. In May 2004, he blithely declared, ‘We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq,’ and in December 2006 he slipped the leash again, saying, ‘They’re behind bars … we’ve got them on Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo.’"
As soon as the news broke, General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, who recently admitted that the CIA had waterboarded “high-value” terror detainees who ended up at Guantanamo, stepped forward to deny that Diego Garcia had ever been used as a “War on Terror” prison. “That is false,” he said, adding, as the New York Times put it, that “neither of the two detainees carried aboard the rendition flights that refuelled at Diego Garcia ‘was ever part of the CIA's high-value terrorist interrogation program.’” He also explained that one of the detainees “was ultimately transferred to Guantánamo,” while the other “was returned to his home country,” which was identified by State Department officials as Morocco. With remarkable insouciance, Gen. Hayden added, “These were rendition operations, nothing more.”
With apparent evidence that a secret prison had indeed existed on Diego Garcia shut out of the discussions -- and no mention made of the name of the casually rendered Moroccan, or of the proof offered by Stephen Grey, the author of "Ghost Plane: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Rendition Programme," that on September 11, 2002, the day that 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh (a “high-value” detainee if ever there was one) was seized in Karachi, one of the CIA’s planes landed at Diego Garcia -- it is no surprise that, before Mr. Miliband had the opportunity to sit down after his contrite performance, Reprieve immediately issued a press release calling for a public inquiry.
Andy is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison" ( http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/?page_id=17).