American officials have reacted with dismay to the charge by the former head of MI5 that US authorities deliberately concealed mistreatment of terror suspects from their British colleagues. The unexpected public statement by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller is said to have significantly added to the strains in the relationship between the two countries on intelligence matters.
At the same time, the former secret service chief faced criticism from human rights groups who expressed scepticism about her claims of being kept in the dark by Washington. Amnesty International said it was "extremely surprising" that she and her organisation were unaware of the allegations of abuse which were being widely aired.
The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said Dame Eliza's "revelations make an unanswerable case for a judicial inquiry into the alleged mistreatment and torture by security services".
Dame Eliza's condemnation of American conduct during the war on terror comes in the wake of consternation in Washington over a decision by High Court judges in London to release sensitive, US-supplied information on the Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed. There was also angry condemnation across the Atlantic of the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.
During a lecture given at a meeting in the House of Lords, Dame Eliza said the British government had made an official complaint to Washington over the abuse of detainees. But no futher details have emerged on either side of the Atlantic of when this complaint was made, or what form it took.
In her speech, highly critical of the US's conduct during the war on terror, the former secret service chief implied that the leadership in Washington was inspired by watching the TV espionage thriller 24. She said: "Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly watched 24". Dame Eliza said: "The Americans were very keen that people like us did not discover what they were doing." She insisted that she had been unaware of what was going on until her retirement in 2007.
One of her retrospective discoveries was the interrogation method used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When she asked her subordinates why the senior al-Qa'ida member was offering so much information, they told her he was "very proud of his achievements when questioned". She added: "It wasn't actually until after I retired that I read that he had been water-boarded 160 times."
The White House refused to comment on Dame Eliza's allegations yesterday. However, US security officials were said to feel particularly let down that the charges had come from someone in her senior position, and denied that American intelligence had used subterfuge with British colleagues.
A senior Pentagon official said there was "a degree of understanding" in the cases of Binyam Mohamed and Mr Megrahi, because the hands of the British authorities had been forced by the courts. The official added: "It is not correct to say that we had kept relevant information from the Brits. There are also a number of other points to consider. Khalid Mohammed was not a British subject and not a British responsibility.
"Things are also done on a need-to-know basis. What was there to say that, in that case, too, the courts would not have directed agencies in the UK to disclose sensitive material? I would also like to point out that the Brits were always very happy to receive information we gave them emanating from Mohammed."
Asked whether President George W Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld watched 24, the official said: "We are not aware of their television habits. It's quite an image though. These three busy guys sitting down together at a very busy time to get their lead from Jack Bauer."
Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said: "Numerous allegations of US mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Bagram were emerging from the beginning of the war on terror. Did MI5 learn nothing of this, even when members of the security service interviewed nine British nationals at Guantanamo in 2003?
"We also know from the Binyam Mohamed case that the security service was told by US officials that Mr Mohamed was kept shackled, deprived of sleep and threatened with being 'disappeared' by his US interrogators."
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