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http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1062-1927526,00.html Opinion - Magnus Linklater December 1 2005

Obscure messages from the dark side

Magnus Linklater

Listen to Britain and the US on ‘torture flights’. Someone is not being straight with us

ONLY THE CIA could come up with a euphemism for anti-terrorist operations that so slickly combines the macho with the sinister. “Extraordinary Rendition” could easily be the title of a Hollywood thriller, with Bruce Willis as The Interrogator; it probably will be. These unexplained flights, criss-crossing Europe with their secret cargoes, fit with the make-believe world that the CIA is supposed to inhabit, and the choice of name may well be intentional. It encourages the idea that the flights belong in the hazy world of the conspiracy theorist rather than the real-life horror of the torture room.

Both Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw have had the opportunity to deny that these are effectively “torture flights”, used to transport terrorist suspects to countries outside US jurisdiction, where they can be subjected to “coercive interrogation” (another euphemism) without infringing American laws. Instead of answering the questions directly, they have posed more. Nothing about their separate statements fits together. The US Secretary of State concedes that the flights do take place, that they are used to transport suspects to places “where they can be questioned, held or brought to justice” and that they are a “vital tool” in combating terrorism. She denies categorically that they involve torture, physical or mental, and she adds that no flight has infringed the sovereignty of any other country.

So far, so straightforward. In that case, however, Britain must have approved the 210 flights that have, at one point or another, used its airports (including, I notice, tiny Wick airport in the very north of Caithness, not known hitherto as a CIA staging post). It must also have satisfied itself about American interrogation techniques, since otherwise these flights would be in breach of international law. Mr Straw, however, professes to know nothing about them. A search of Whitehall records, he says, has failed to turn up any evidence of the US using British airspace to transport terrorist suspects. Of course, he cannot be sure there have been no such flights, because foreign government aircraft “come and go all the time”, and, as Adam Ingram, the Defence Minister, pointed out, unless passengers get off, no one can tell whether they are on board or not. The Foreign Secretary promised to keep looking.

This is, literally, unbelievable. Or rather, to believe it we have to assume a complete absence of trust, communication and intelligence between the two principal Western nations fighting terrorism. Either the CIA is withholding information from MI6 about transporting suspects or MI6 is keeping the Foreign Secretary in the dark. Or else, of course, Mr Straw is avoiding the issue. The question he was actually asked was when he first heard about extraordinary rendition. Instead he chose to address another one — whether he had written records — which, we are asked to accept, he has not. The same obfuscation applies to the detention camps or “black sites” in Eastern Europe, Thailand and North Africa, where, as The Washington Post has been claiming, interrogation of terrorist suspects has been taking place. Asked in Parliament what information he has received about these camps, Mr Straw answers: “None.” What he did not say was whether he has ever asked about them.

There are two semi-respectable explanations for this state of ignorance. The first is that these are matters that concern national security, that openness and accountability must of necessity take second place to the handling and interrogation of terrorist suspects. The second is that, in fighting terrorism, rules may have to be broken, and it is best to leave operational matters to the security services rather than be burdened with too much compromising information.

The first is defensible only if you are straightforward about it. Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, who has talked about going to “the dark side” in interrogating terrorists, and has said that harsh techniques may be justified, has come as close as any senior Western figure to condoning torture. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that attitude carried some support among the American public. Now, however, since Abu Ghraib, moral values have been reasserted and the White House finds itself on the losing side of a high-profile debate with the Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran, whose anti-torture Bill has been approved by 90 votes to 9. It would require Americans holding prisoners abroad to apply the same standards of humane treatment as at home under the US Constitution.

Senator McCain argues that, when it comes to torture, there can be no equivocation. The country that condones it, or seeks to pass it off under weasel descriptions, sacrifices the moral high ground that is its best defence against terrorism. As a result of McCain’s Bill, there is in America a full-blown debate on torture and its use, which has been joined by George Bush himself and his Secretary of State. Indeed Dr Rice’s forthright statement on the use of torture may itself be an attempt to move the President away from his hardline stance.

That same debate has not yet been properly joined by the British Government. Thus far, it has been left to the House of Lords to condemn the use of torture with a clarity and determination that we have yet to hear from ministers. So long as the Foreign Secretary affects to know nothing about anti-terrorist operations taking place within his own jurisdiction, then he must expect the rest of us to challenge his judgment and question his integrity. He must defend the indefensible or reject it. Turning his back is not an option