Sunday, December 04, 2005
Straw was last week pressured into writing to Condoleezza Rice, his US counterpart, in Britain's capacity as president of the European Union, to request "clarification" of claims that the CIA had used private jets to ferry terror suspects for interrogation - even torture - in secret prisons in Europe.
The Foreign Secretary's second letter, which is understood to have been written on behalf of the British government, follows growing anger on both sides of the Atlantic at the so-called "extraordinary rendition" missions passing through British airspace or stopping at airports across the country. Straw's letter to Washington asks Rice for more details on the flights. Rice, the US Secretary of State, will be forced to answer the EU-wide concerns about the so-called "black sites", set out in Straw's communication, when she visits Europe this week.
But Scotland on Sunday has established that the Foreign Secretary has also made an individual approach to Britain's closest ally for more information about US activities in, and above, the UK. The approach came as it emerged that a US civil rights groups says it is taking the CIA to court to stop the transportation of terror suspects to countries outside US legal authority. The American Civil Liberties Union, which is acting for a man allegedly flown to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, said the intelligence agency has broken both US and international law.
"It is wrong for anyone to say we have not pressed the Americans on this," one senior source close to the Foreign Office said last night. "We have asked questions. We have done it officially and less officially and we hope to start getting some more information on this in the next few days."
Straw is understood to have written to Rice last week, appealing for more information on the scale and nature of CIA flights through the UK. Campaigners claim that CIA-owned jets have passed through UK airports - including six in Scotland - on more than 200 occasions since the start of the international war on terror four years ago.
Ministers have been accused of displaying a "lack of curiosity" in not questioning the flights in the past. But their belated attempts to find out what the CIA planes have been doing in the UK since 2001 were last night greeted with caution by civil rights campaigners.
THEY go by names such as N581GA and N44982, N8068V and N379P - featureless identifiers that reveal nothing of their intriguing role in the fight against international terrorism.
The aircraft of the "ghost fleet", the CIA-owned collection of jets that has criss-crossed the globe diligently and incessantly since September 11, 2001, have been regular sights on the tarmac of Scotland's airports.
On at least 170 occasions, at Prestwick, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leuchars, Inverness and Wick, the Gulfstreams have touched down and hung around for anything from a few minutes to overnight stays. Yet, while the world's news pages have gradually come alive to allegations of "extraordinary rendition", to the prospect of detainees being carried on the planes, drugged and ferried to "black sites" where they could be tortured in private, they have remained unmolested by the UK authorities.
It was a remarkably neighbourly gesture, particularly at a time of increased international scrutiny, when other foreign governments were either demanding explanations from the Americans or banning "ghost flights" from their air space. Chris Mullin, a Foreign Office minister until earlier this year, last week observed that his colleagues had shown a marked "lack of curiosity" about the developing mystery surrounding the flights.
Human Rights minister Ian Pearson attempted to set the record straight, telling MPs: "When it comes to 'black sites' and, indeed, when it comes to rendition ... it is right for us to ask the US for more information, and we are actively doing that."
As of March, 108 detainees were known to have died in US military and CIA custody. At least 26 deaths have been investigated as criminal homicides.
The justification for the UK staying out of the issue may, however, be taken away from politicians and the legal system, if human rights campaigners are successful in forcing the authorities to take action to investigate the growing suspicions.
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