Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Refusal to question US over 'torture flights' may be illegal
Straw finally admits CIA planes landed in Britain
Calls grow for inquiry into use of UK in 'renditions'
Tuesday December 13, 2005
The government may be breaking the law by refusing to question the US about 'torture flights', senior MPs said yesterday, as it admitted for the first time that CIA aircraft had landed at British airports.
Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, said yesterday 'careful research by officials' had failed to identify any request from the Bush administration for the passage through Britain of aircraft taking terrorist suspects to secret interrogation centres - described in the US as 'extraordinary rendition'. He said two such requests were approved under the Clinton administration for flights taking suspects to the US for trial. Another case, also under president Clinton, was still being investigated but might have been refused, Mr Straw said. In answers to Commons questions from Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, Mr Straw also said no records had been found of any later requests from Washington.
But ministers have said that no relevant records exist of such flights because the government does not need to keep them. The Ministry of Defence has said no records of passengers are needed if they do not leave the airfield. And yesterday Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, refused to say how many times a Boeing 737 and a Gulfstream identified by the Guardian as being used by the CIA - registered N313P and N379P - had landed in Britain. Such information could only be provided at 'disproportionate cost', he said. The Department of Transport says it does not need a record of the two aircraft unless they were involved in 'civil commercial' operations. It also says it needed no record if the aircraft landed to refuel.
Mr Straw and Mr Ingram yesterday refused to say what MI5 and MI6 knew about such flights, or about 'rendering' suspects. It was the government's policy 'never to comment on intelligence matters', they said. In an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday Mr Straw admitted CIA flights came to Britain. Asked if he was saying that aircraft - first identified by the Guardian - were not CIA planes, Mr Straw replied: 'I am not telling you that.'
Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP for Chichester and chairman of a parliamentary committee set up to investigate the CIA flights, told the Guardian: 'Turning a blind eye is not good enough. There is enough weight in the evidence which requires the UK to investigate and ask the US categorically what is going on.
'Until that is done and we have a clearer and frank answer the British government will remain exposed to the possibility they may be breaking the law.'
Sir Menzies said it now seemed 'self-evident that a system of inspections is required'. He added: 'The government's legal obligations - both domestic and international - make it imperative that we can be satisfied in all cases that no extraordinary rendition is taking place'.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: 'Few would be naive enough to expect a foreign power to ask specific permission to use Britain for the shameful and shadowy business of kidnap and torture. We need a proactive investigation rather than a [Foreign Office] file-check.'
Charles Clarke, the home secretary, writes in today's Guardian that while the law lords last week precluded the use in court of evidence obtained by torture, they 'held it perfectly lawful for such information to be relied on operationally, and also by the home secretary in making executive decisions'."