NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – The U.S. and British governments revealed in late February that two U.S. “extraordinary rendition” flights carrying terrorism suspects refueled on British territory on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in 2002.
Meanwhile a federal court bowed to pressure from the George W. Bush administration to dismiss a case against a Boeing subsidiary being sued for providing the aircraft that carried the suspected terrorists.
Both the British and U.S. governments had repeatedly denied that the CIA had ever used British airspace or territory for the secret flights.
Foreign Minister David Miliband said he was “very sorry indeed” to have to correct previous denials by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and other top British officials. Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed “disappointment” that the United States just recently notified the British government of the flights and called it a “very serious issue.”
In a telephone call, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apologized to Prime Minister Brown. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden issued a statement saying that information supplied to Britain “in good faith” had “turned out to be wrong.”
Human rights advocates have long suspected that the Indian Ocean atoll was being used as a base for detaining or transporting suspected terrorists.
The British government has consistently denied any involvement in the CIA’s rendition program, in which terror suspects are flown for interrogation to countries whose security services are known to practice torture.
In February, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., for the company’s alleged role in the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program.
The suit charged that Jeppesen knowingly aided the program by providing flight planning and logistical support services for aircraft and crews used by the CIA to transport victims to U.S.-run prisons or foreign intelligence agencies overseas, where they were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques and torture.
The government successfully intervened to block the suit, arguing that litigation of the case would reveal state secrets and harm national security. The Bush administration has increasingly used the “state secrets privilege” to block lawsuits. The judge rejected the ACLU’s claim that “abundant evidence” was already in the public domain, including a sworn affidavit by a former Jeppesen employee and flight records confirming Jeppesen’s involvement. The ACLU plans to appeal the verdict.
In a related development, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on the bipartisan State Secrets Protection Act, which would require courts to examine classified evidence instead of dismissing cases on the word of the perpetrators themselves, and would prohibit any dismissal prior to discovery. The measure has been introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the committee’s ranking member.
These developments came on the heels of congressional testimony by a controversial Justice Department lawyer, Steven G. Bradbury, during which he admitted that the Bush administration allowed CIA interrogators to use tactics that were “quite distressing, uncomfortable, even frightening,” but did not cause enough severe and lasting pain to qualify as torture.
President Bush has nominated Mr. Bradbury to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of which he is now acting chief. He is the author of several memoranda purporting to establish a legal basis for the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. Waterboarding is generally defined as “simulated drowning.”
The Office of Legal Counsel, one of the Justice Department’s most influential offices, drafts legal opinions of the attorney general and also provides its own written opinions. The office also is responsible for providing legal advice to the executive branch on all constitutional questions and reviewing pending legislation for constitutionality.
In a surprisingly direct testimony before a House of Representatives committee, Mr. Bradbury described in grim detail how the administration regulated the CIA’s use of aggressive tactics and offered new details on how waterboarding was used to compel disclosures by prisoners suspected of being al-Qaida members.
He denied that the CIA’s waterboarding techniques were similar to the “water torture” used during the Spanish Inquisition and by the security services of dictatorial governments during the 20th century. Bradbury joined his boss, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, in declining to say whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it is illegal under laws passed in 2005 and 2006 to regulate abusive treatment of detainees.
Experts on human rights abuses and torture say the CIA’s waterboarding practice is similar to the technique employed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the French in Algeria and the security services in Burma.