This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Monday, 27 February 2012
Rendition: did UK play secret role?
New evidence has emerged of an alleged cover-up of Britain’s secret role in the “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects.
Classified documents, seen by The Sunday Telegraph, suggest Parliament has been repeatedly misled by ministers about the extent of British intelligence officials’ involvement in the American-run operations.
The papers outline how MI6 provided key intelligence and support for the transfer of terrorists for interrogation in Libya.
They show that, in direct contradiction to assurances given by successive governments, a British airbase was apparently used as a key staging post for the CIA programme.
The new information centres on MI6’s role in the rendition of Abdelhakim Belhadj, a leading opponent of Col Muammar Gaddafi and then terrorist suspect, to Tripoli in March 2004, where he faced imprisonment and alleged torture.
The documents include classified details of how MI6 alerted Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, to Mr Belhadj’s detention on immigration grounds in Malaysia.
He was then seized by the CIA in Bangkok, and put on a flight bound for Diego Garcia, a British sovereign territory in the Indian Ocean. The plane refuelled there before flying to Libya, according to the CIA flight schedule.
Deal in the desert. Blair and Gaddafi
It provides new evidence of the close links between MI6 and their Libyan counterparts, the ESO, at the time.
The rendition took place just two weeks before Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time, signed “the deal in the desert” with Gaddafi, which reopened diplomatic relations with his regime for the first time since the Lockerbie bombing. In return, Gaddafi agreed to abandon his chemical and biological weapons programme.
But four years later, David Miliband, then foreign secretary, told the Commons that Diego Garcia, which campaigners claim was used as a “black site” terrorist detention centre by the Americans, had only ever been used twice during rendition operations. He said both instances had happened in 2002 and without Britain’s knowledge. Mr Miliband added that the government had recently received information from Washington that two flights – one to Guantánamo Bay and one to Morocco — had stopped over at Diego Garcia in 2002.
He also apologised to MPs for incorrect information previously given by his predecessor, Jack Straw, and Mr Blair. “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 told MPs. An “error in the earlier US records search had meant these cases did not come to light”.
David Lidington, the Europe minister in the current government, reiterated the statement in a parliamentary answer last December, insisting Diego Garcia had only been used in the two 2002 renditions disclosed by Mr Miliband.
Yet the newly uncovered intelligence documents appear to confirm that Britain played an active role in Mr Belhadj’s detention in 2004 and transfer to Gaddafi’s regime.
The documents are part of a cache of material sent over a secure fax line to the office of Mr Koussa from his contacts in the Western intelligence services, including Sir Mark Allen, the then MI6 counter-terrorism director who brokered the “deal in the desert”.
Dated March 1, 2004, a secret MI6 alert headed “Abdullah Sadeq” (the name by which Mr Belhadj was known at the time), was sent at 8.18pm from MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Bridge, London. It disclosed that Mr Belhadj had been detained in Malaysia travelling on a false passport.
The report suggests the British were the first to alert Libya that Mr Belhadj, who was wanted as head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a terrorist group outlawed by the UN over alleged links to al-Qaeda, was in custody.
It disclosed that Mr Belhadj and his pregnant wife were being held in Sepang, in the south of the country, and that he had been travelling on a French passport, but was now claiming to be a Moroccan national with a passport in the name Abdul Al-Nabi.
The document is unsigned but the typeface appears identical to a series of similar alerts sent from the office of Sir Mark, who was in regular touch with Mr Koussa.
Four days later, the Libyans were contacted by the CIA. The first faxed memo, using a different spelling of Mr Belhadj’s alias, was headed “Urgent Request Regarding the Extradition of Abdullah al-Sadiq from Malaysia”, It said that the CIA was “working energetically” with the Malaysians to extradite him.
Later the same day a second CIA memo was faxed to Libyan intelligence. It said: “Our service is committed to rendering the terrorist … to your custody. To this end, we have been in touch with Malaysian authorities to help facilitate the transfer of custody in a timely manner.”
On March 6 another secret memo was sent by the CIA, giving a full breakdown of the plan to transfer him to Libya.
The CIA explained that the Malaysian government “informed us that they are putting [Mr Belhadj] and his pregnant (4 months) wife on a commercial flight to London via Bangkok … We are planning to arrange to take control of the pair in Bangkok and place them on an aircraft for a flight to your country.”
The document detailed how the aircraft carrying Mr Belhadj would leave Bangkok at 10.30pm GMT on March 8, 2004, and arrive at Diego Garcia at 3.30am the following day. The schedule showed that the CIA jet was due to remain on the island for two hours while it was refuelled before flying on to Tripoli.
The memo added: “We also appreciate your allowing our service direct access to [Mr Belhadj] for debriefing purposes once he is in your custody. Please be advised that we must be assured that [Mr Belhadj] will be treated humanely and that his human rights will be respected.” Flight records of a CIA 747 regularly used in renditions, registration N313P, show it left Washington DC according to the schedule and flew to Tripoli before leaving for an unrecorded destination. It returned to Tripoli two days later, again following the plan outlined in the secret CIA memo.
The new documents will add to the pressure on the Government and the Security and Intelligence Service. Recently it emerged Sir Mark had sent a letter to Mr Koussa shortly after the rendition saying: “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Mr Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years.”
Last month, Mr Belhadj, a commander of the anti-Gaddafi forces during the Libyan civil war, launched a legal action against the Government, MI5 and MI6 and Sir Mark over their alleged complicity in his case.
A leading human rights lawyer said the documents appeared to prove that, despite previous claims, MI6 was involved in the renditions and that Parliament had been consistently misled.
Cori Crider, the legal director of Reprieve, an international human rights group, said: “The files show that the renditions were part of a package deal. We’re all waiting to see a minister step up and take responsibility for what was clearly planned at the highest levels of government.
“At some point, all these claims of ignorance by various government ministers are going to have to fall in the face of the evidence.”
Former MI6 counterterrorism chief Sir Mark Allen
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Due to the ongoing police investigation and pre-action proceedings I am unable to comment further.”
Whitehall sources said that in 2007 Mr Blair, the prime minister at the time, told the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee there was a request, in early 2004, to refuel a flight carrying a US-held detainee, but this did not take place.
Intelligence documents seen by The Sunday Telegraph relating to the case of another Libyan opposition figure, Sami al-Saadi (also known as Abu Munthir), suggest British involvement in another CIA-led extrajudicial transfer to the Gaddafi regime.
Mr al-Saadi, who also has a legal case against the Government, was detained in Hong Kong in March 2004 immediately before the “deal in the desert” and then handed over to Libya. He says MI6 was instrumental in this and he also claims that British agents interrogated him while he was held in Libyan detention.
A secret memo from the CIA to the office of Mr Koussa, dated March 23, 2004, and headed “Rendition of LIFG Deputy Emir Abu Munthir” said: “Our service has become aware that last weekend LIFG Deputy Emir Abu Munthir and his spouse and children were being held in Hong Kong detention for immigration/passport violations.”
It added: “We are also aware that your service had been co-operating with the British to effect Abu Munthir’s removal to Tripoli, and that you had an aircraft available for this purpose in the Maldives.”