CIA corrects itself on rendition flights

February 21, 2008 11:08:48 AM PST
CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledged Thursday that two rendition flights carrying terror suspects refueled on British territory, despite repeated U.S. assurances that none of the secret flights since the Sept. 11 attacks had used British airspace or soil.Hayden told agency employees that information previously provided to the British "turned out to be wrong."

The spy agency reviewed rendition records late last year and discovered that in 2002 the CIA had in fact refueled two separate planes, each carrying a terror suspect, on Diego Garcia, a British island territory in the Indian Ocean.

"The refueling, conducted more than five years ago, lasted just a short time. But it happened. That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong. An important part of intelligence work, inherently urgent, complex, and uncertain, is to take responsibility for errors and to learn from them," Hayden stated in the message obtained by The Associated Press.

Hayden said neither man was tortured and denied there has ever been a holding facility for CIA prisoners on Diego Garcia. Both men remained on their respective planes during the brief stops, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Hayden delivered the news to the British government last weekend on a previously scheduled trip to London.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the rendition flights earlier Thursday. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he "shared the disappointment that everybody has" about the stops, and that it was important to ensure they would not happen again.

The State Department's top lawyer, John Bellinger, flew to London overnight to deal with potential diplomatic and political fallout, according to a senior State Department official.

One of the two prisoners is now jailed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and the other was released to his home country, where he has since been freed by that government, the U.S. intelligence official said.

The CIA didn't interrogate or imprison either man, according to the official. In this case, the CIA only moved the two men from one country to another.

The CIA has held and interrogated fewer than 100 prisoners in its detention program, using "enhanced" or harsh interrogation techniques on about a third of them, Hayden has told Congress.

The rendition program secretly transfers alleged terrorists from one country to another without formal extradition proceedings. It can involve moving prisoners to the custody of governments where harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, are known to be used. The U.S. government insists it does not move prisoners to third countries without assurances that torture will not be used.

The British government had previously insisted it had no evidence to support allegations that Britain had been involved in rendition.

At the time of the 2002 flights in question, the United States and Britain did not have an agreement regarding the use of the Diego Garcia facility for renditions, and the refueling stops did not require permission from British authorities, the State Department said.

However, that began to change in 2003 with an "evolving" series of understandings that now require the United States to seek and receive British permission to use Diego Garcia for renditions, spokesman Sean McCormack said.

A "final mutual understanding" appears to have been in place by late 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States respects the sovereignty of foreign countries when conducting intelligence operations within their borders, suggesting that the CIA conducts rendition flights with the permission of the governments involved.

In a Dec. 6, 2005, interview with Sky News from Berlin, Rice publicly sidestepped a question about whether British airports or airspace were being used in rendition, and whether the British government was aware of it.

"We have obligations under our international conventions and we are respecting the sovereignty of our allies," she said. "We are not using the airspace or the airports of any of our partners for activities that would lead renditions to torture. We don't send people to be tortured."

McCormack said Rice spoke to Miliband about "the administrative error" on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, unfortunately, even with the most rigorous searches and, unfortunately, with good technology, sometimes administrative errors occur and this was the case," McCormack said. "We regret that there was an error in initially providing inaccurate information to a good friend and ally."

McCormack said the review last year was "self-generated."

A U.S. intelligence official said the review was prompted by fresh allegations in the press last fall that Diego Garcia was being used as a secret detention site.

"We, in taking a look in particular at the issue of Diego Garcia, asked ourselves a few questions and as a result generated this search," he said.

Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman for President Bush, said the incident was "unfortunate" but will not damage U.S.-British cooperation.

"Mistakes were made in the reporting of the information," he said. "But we will continue to have a good counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and United Kingdom."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.

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