Al-Qa'ida operative 'lied about links with Iraq to avoid torture'

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The Independent Online

The rationale behind Washington's "rendition" of terror suspects has been called into question by a senior al-Qa'ida operative, who says he made false claims to Egyptian interrogators about the group's links with Iraq in order to escape being tortured.

At the same time, the equally contentious issue of secret CIA prisons has flared up again, with the admission by a senior State Department lawyer that the Red Cross did not have access to all detainees held by the United States. His words are bound to reinforce suspicions that the US does operate such a network, beyond the reach of all supervision.

The prisoner is Ibn Sheikh al-Libby, captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and, at the time, the most senior al-Qa'ida figure in US hands. In early 2002 he was secretly handed over to Egypt under the "rendition" process.

Last month, in a major embarrassment for the Bush administration, it emerged that some US intelligence agencies had doubts about his testimony a full year before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The revelation was seized upon by war critics as fresh proof that the White House distorted intelligence to make its case for war.

Indeed, declassified documents made public by Senate Democrats showed that even the DIA - the Pentagon's own intelligence division - believed as early as February 2002 that al-Libby was probably "intentionally misleading debriefers" in asserting that Saddam Hussein's regime was training al-Qa'ida on explosives and chemical weapons. Now, however, it seems that he provided this false information to avoid being tortured by the Egyptians, if "current and former US government officials" quoted by The New York Times yesterday are to be believed.

Al-Libby is known to have spoken about Iraqi ties with al-Qa'ida when he was first held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. But, according to the officials, he provided the most detailed information after he was sent to Egypt - one of at least 150 terror suspects to have been subjected to "rendition".

Ever since details of secret CIA "ghost flights" first surfaced some two years ago, the US has been fending off accusations that it was sending suspects to allied countries, including Egypt, where it knew they might well be subjected to torture banned by international conventions to which the US susbscribes. But the al-Libby affair appears to bear out what opponents of torture have also long insisted - that far from eliciting the truth, its use only encourages victims to tell interrogators what they want to hear, to avoid further suffering. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and other administration officials insist the US eschews torture.

Separate uproar is also looming about secret CIA prisons - after John Bellinger, the State Department's legal counsel, said the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to all prisoners held by US forces. The ICRC could visit "absolutely everybody" at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, he said. But, asked if that applied to all detainees held elsewhere, he replied simply, "No", without giving further details.