Leaked memo reveals 'torture flights cover-up'

Click to follow

The dispute over the Government's possible involvement in CIA "torture flights" reignited last night following a leak of a top-level memo which admitted that people captured in Iraq or Afghanistan by British forces could have been sent illegally to interrogation centres.

Ministers stand accused of trying to suffocate attempts to uncover the CIA practice of extraordinary rendition - taking terror suspects to be questioned in countries where interrogation methods are used that are illegal in the US.

A mass of evidence was accumulated at the end of last year showing details of CIA flights, with planes travelling through European countries, including the UK.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told Parliament on 12 December last year that checks had uncovered no occasion since the attacks of 11 September 2001 when the US had asked to use British airspace for rendition flights.

But in a briefing note to Tony Blair's office five days earlier - obtained by the New Statesman magazine - the Foreign Office admitted it had no idea how many times the UK had allowed such flights to cross its skies. As of early December it had been unable "to complete the substantial research required to establish what has happened since 1997". The Home Office was "urgently examining their files", as were the Ministry of Defence and the security services.

The memo, from Irfan Siddiq to Grace Cassy at 10 Downing St, suggests the Prime Minister "should try to avoid getting drawn on detail" and "try to move the debate on". On 22 December, Mr Blair said at his monthly press conference: "It is not something that I have ever actually come across until this whole thing has blown up, and I don't know anything about it."

One of the questions the document addressed was: "How do we know whether those our armed forces have helped to capture in Iraq or Afghanistan have subsequently been sent to interrogation centres?" The answer: "We have no mechanism for establishing this, though we would not ourselves question such detainees while they were in such facilities."

The key thing the Foreign Office did accept was that extraordinary rendition "is almost certainly illegal" and any British co-operation "would also be illegal".

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, whose request for action has prompted a police investigation into allegations of British collusion in rendition flights, said the Government "seems more concerned about spinning than investigating our concerns".