The British government acknowledged Thursday that it had been misled when it pledged to Parliament that British territory had never been used for controversial CIA flights transporting terrorism suspects, after the U.S. revealed that two such flights occurred in 2002.
The revelations sparked an outcry in Parliament, which had long voiced suspicions that the much-criticized and highly secretive rendition flights had refueled in British territories.
"The delay in releasing the information and the evident absence of a request [to Britain] in these cases are bound to undermine public trust to some extent in the arrangements we have with the United States," said William Hague, a spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party.
"What is so special about a relationship where one of the partners appears to abuse trust, truth and respect?" said Labor lawmaker Lynda Waltho, referring to the alliance between the U.S. and Britain
The damaging revelations that two CIA flights transporting terrorism suspects landed for refueling on the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where the U.S. and Britain maintain a key military supply base, came after the United States said it conducted a further, more exhaustive inquiry.
"Our government had told the British that there had been no rendition flights involving their soil or airspace since 9/11. That information, supplied in good faith, turned out to be wrong," CIA director Mike Hayden said in a statement Thursday.
"In fact, on two different occasions in 2002, an American plane with a detainee on board stopped briefly in Diego Garcia for refueling," he said. "Neither of those individuals was ever part of CIA's high-value terrorist interrogation program. One was ultimately transferred to Guantanamo, and the other was returned to his home country."
Program under attack
The U.S. has faced severe international criticism for the post-Sept. 11 CIA program known as "extraordinary rendition," in which prisoners have been transported to countries known to use torture.
U.S. officials emphasized that the two flights in question were not part of that program.
Both U.S. and British officials refused to discuss the identities or nationalities of the detainees, except to say that they were suspected terrorists who were not British.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in his somewhat sheepish report to Parliament, said he had been assured that neither suspect was taken to a secret detention facility "nor were they subject to waterboarding or other similar forms of torture."
Miliband said he was confident that earlier U.S. denials had been given "in good faith," and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed her British counterpart as soon as she became aware of the contradictory information.
Still, previous categorical denials from former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw were replayed Thursday.
"Does the foreign secretary accept that Tony Blair's previous dismissal of our calls for an inquiry into rendition as 'absurd' now itself looks absurd?" said Edward Davey, a lawmaker from the Liberal Democrat Party.
Menzies Campbell, the party's former leader, said the case appeared to show that the British government has "absolutely no effective control" over what happens at Diego Garcia.
"For how long is that sustainable?" Campbell said.
"If the roles were reversed, is it conceivable that the American government, or indeed the American Congress, would tolerate such a set of circumstances?"
U.S. found records
Briefing reporters in London, U.S. State Department legal advisor John B. Bellinger III said the two flights came to light after the U.S. government reexamined past operations, in some cases going back to re-interview employees who no longer worked for the government and conducting a "more exhaustive search" of records.
"You will ask why this was in fact not determined before. As best as we can tell, it was because of an administrative error in the way the searches were conducted previously," he said. "As I understand it, they did not check either in the right places, or with the right people."
He said neither of the detainees left the plane, no detainees were ever held at Diego Garcia or the surrounding territory, and the suspects involved in the two flights were not part of the "so-called CIA program" and were "not subject to enhanced interrogation techniques."
He said U.S. officials did not believe at the time that they had an obligation to inform Britain of the flights.
"But since that time . . . for the last number of years, we have assured the government that we would not use British airspace to transit detainees without U.K. government approval."
Miliband said the British government would present to Washington a list for additional review of U.S. flights on British territory over which concerns have been raised. Some British human rights organizations were indignant that such a step was necessary.
"The U.S. has lost credibility, and they've lost the opportunity to have anything they say to be taken at good faith and face value. And that's a tragedy," said Zachary Katznelson, an American and senior counselor at the anti-death penalty group Reprieve, which has researched alleged rendition flights in British territory.