Within days of the 9/11 attacks on the US, the CIA told British intelligence officers of its plans to abduct al-Qaida suspects and fly them to secret prisons where they would be systematically abused. The meeting, at the British embassy in Washington, is disclosed in a forthcoming book by the Guardian journalist Ian Cobain. It raises serious questions about repeated claims by senior MI5 and MI6 officers that they were slow to appreciate the US response to the attacks, and never connived in torture.
The meeting signalled to British officials that the US was preparing to indulge in a global kidnapping programme which became known as extraordinary rendition. Cobain reveals that at the end of a three-hour presentation by Cofer Black, President George Bush’s senior counter-terrorist adviser, Mark Allen, his opposite number in MI6, commented that it all sounded “rather blood-curdling”.
A few weeks later, in early October 2001, at a secret meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels, US officials drew up a list of “necessary measures to increase security”, Cobain discloses. They included flights to and from secret prisons in Asia, Africa, and throughout Europe. “Quietly, Britain pledged logistics support for the rendition programme, which resulted in the CIA’s Gulfstream V and other jets becoming frequent visitors to British airports en route to the agency’s secret prisons,” writes Cobain.
Over the next four years CIA rendition flights used British airports at least 210 times. The book reveals that Washington asked the UK for permission to build a large prison on Diego Garcia, the British territory in the Indian Ocean where the US has a large bomber base. The project was dropped, for logistical rather than legal reasons.
However, Diego Garcia was used as a stopover for CIA flights taking detainees to secret prisons around the world. And in secret memos, Labour ministers said in early 2002 that their “preferred option” was to render British nationals to Guantánamo Bay, Cobain records. MI5 and MI6 officers carried out around 100 interrogations at the US prison on Cuba between 2002 and 2004.
Cobain’s book, Cruel Britannia, says the British military operated a “torture centre” throughout the 1940s “in complete secrecy, in a row of Victorian villas in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in London”. They also ran an “interrogation centre” near Hanover in Germany. Evidence from newly released records shows that British involvement in abuse was common earlier – in the colonies, later in Northern Ireland, and much more recently in Iraq.