February 22, 2008, London, United Kingdom — In tones freighted with frustration, Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, on Thursday told the House of Commons that “contrary to earlier explicit assurances” the Central Intelligence Agency had confirmed using an American-operated airfield on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean for refuelling two American “rendition” flights carrying terrorism suspects in 2002.
The American acknowledgment of the flights, each carrying a single detainee, contradicted previous assurances by the United States to Britain’s Labor government that no such flights had landed on British territory or passed through British airspace. Although the C.I.A. attributed its earlier denials to a “flawed records search,” the admission could add to the animosity the government here has aroused, particularly with Labor’s left wing, over its alliance with the United States in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Miliband’s statement prompted protests from members of Parliament from various parties and from British-based human rights groups that had contended for years that Britain had been a knowing or unknowing partner in the American use of rendition flights. The term has been used to describe the secret transport of prisoners from one country or jurisdiction to another without formal extradition proceedings. It gained much of its notoriety from the American practice after Sept. 11, 2001, of transporting terrorism suspects secretly to other countries for interrogation.
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, informed British officials of the 2002 flights during a visit to London last week. He issued a statement to the agency’s staff in Washington on Thursday saying that a fresh review of agency records had shown that the C.I.A. had erred in assuring Britain previously that “there had been no rendition flights involving their soil or airspace” since the 2001 attacks in the United States. Mr. Miliband said he had received a personal apology from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had told him that she shared his “deep regret” about the earlier false denials.
“That information, supplied in good faith, turned out to be wrong,” General Hayden said, adding, “This time, the examination revealed the two stops in Diego Garcia. The refueling, conducted more than five years ago, lasted just a short time. But it happened. That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong. An important part of intelligence work, inherently urgent, complex and uncertain, is to take responsibility for errors and to learn from them. In this case, the result of a flawed records search, we have done so.”
Mr. Miliband told the House of Commons he was “very sorry indeed” to have to revise the Labor government’s repeated assurances in recent years that it knew of no American rendition flights involving British airspace or airfields. The British assurances, on numerous occasions in 2005, 2006 and 2007, were given, among others, by the former prime minister, Tony Blair, who said in 2005 that he was “not prepared to believe” that the Americans had broken faith with Britain over the issue, and by a former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, who dismissed the accusations as “a very old story,” and a discredited one.
“The House and its members will be deeply disappointed at this news, and about its late emergence,” Mr. Miliband said in his Commons statement.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, visiting Brussels, spoke in similar terms. “It is unfortunate that this was not known, and it was unfortunate it happened without us knowing that it had happened,” he said, adding that Britain would press for procedures to ensure that such a breach could not happen again.
For Mr. Brown, the information about the flights came at a politically awkward moment, when he has been struggling with low poll ratings driven by a series of government mishaps, and by months of uncertainty over the future of the troubled Northern Rock bank, which was finally nationalized in legislation rushed through Parliament on Monday. Mr. Brown, a silent skeptic during the Blair years about Britain’s military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, has also been working to replace the close relationship Mr. Blair had with President Bush with a more wary stance and moving rapidly to draw down Britain’s remaining 4,200 troops in Iraq.
In his account, General Hayden, the C.I.A. director, said that neither of the two detainees carried aboard the rendition flights that refuelled at Diego Garcia “was ever part of the C.I.A.’s high-value terrorist interrogation program.” This appeared to be his way of saying what Mr. Miliband, in his Commons statement, made explicit, that the suspects on the two flights were not taken to any of the C.I.A.’s network of secret prisons, some of them in eastern Europe, and that they were not subjected to stress techniques that critics of the C.I.A. program have described as tantamount to torture, including waterboarding.
General Hayden said one of the detainees “was ultimately transferred to Guantánamo,” the American military prison on the eastern tip of Cuba, while the other “was returned to his home country,” identified by State Department officials in Washington on Thursday as Morocco. “These were rendition operations, nothing more,” General Hayden said. He also used the statement to refute accusations by human rights groups that the C.I.A. “had a holding facility” for terrorist suspects on Diego Garcia, a 40-mile long island leased by Britain about 1,000 miles southwest of the southernmost tip of India. “That is false,” he said.
For more than 30 years, the United States has operated a military air base on the island under an agreement with Britain, using it mainly for refuelling and as a forward base for long-range bombers, including B-52’s, that have been used in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As many as 2,500 American military personnel are said to be stationed at the base, while Britain has only a few hundred. More than 2,000 islanders were transferred elsewhere after Britain leased the island, many of them under bitter protest.
For years, governments and Parliaments across Europe have been roiled by accusations that the C.I.A. has used European airspace and airfields for rendition flights, but in the face of insistent American denials much about the practice has remained murky. The nations listed by human rights groups as having been involved in the flights — or of turning a blind eye to use of their airfields — have included Britain, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, among others. One British rights group, Liberty, contended in 2005 that aircraft operated by or chartered by the C.I.A. had used 11 British airports and air bases since 2001, involving 210 flights.
The CIA’s acknowledgment that it misled Britain about the two flights revived those accusations, and not only among the rights groups. Mr. Miliband said the foreign office was compiling a list of flights that protest groups have cited in their accusations of British complicity in the C.I.A. rendition program, which would be passed to the United States for “their specific assurance that none of these fights were used for rendition purposes.” William Hague, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservatives, espressed support for that plan.
“As America’s candid friend,” Mr. Hague told the BBC, Britain should insist that the Bush administration clear up all the uncertainties surrounding rendition, and not only the details of the flights, but whether it was prepared to “adopt a definition of torture” that met the standards laid down in international conventions.