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Brit spooks: Yanks are frightful cowboys

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And then in 2003, the British spooks began to be aware that America was operating secret third-country prisons.

"C", the head of SIS, said to the ISC:

"It never crossed my mind that [the intelligence] was coming from torture. We are talking about the Americans, our closest ally. This now, with hindsight, may look naive, but all I can say is that is what we thought at the time."

It's since been alleged that SIS may subsequently have got involved in a bit of torturing in the wake of the London 7/7 bombings, though it denies this.

It appears that SIS did begin to realise they could get in trouble simply by passing intel to third countries, as those countries might then inform the US and people might vanish.

According to the ISC: "In early 2005, SIS developed an operation that might have provided high-value intelligence on a target. The circumstances were such that the only viable option [blanked out] and they therefore sought Ministerial authorisation ... Approval was given on condition that appropriate assurances on humane treatment and a limit on the duration of detention were obtained [blanked out] ... the operational proposal was dropped because SIS was not able to satisfy itself as to the likely treatment of the target."

President Bush publicly admitted the existence of secret CIA overseas prisons - as distinct from the military jail at Guantanamo - last year.

The ISC members said "the rendition programme has revealed aspects of the usually close UK/US relationship that are surprising and concerning. It has highlighted that the UK and U.S. work under very different legal guidelines and ethical approaches."

Dame Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, argued that the policy of rendition might actually make things worse rather than better:

"I have certainly had discussions about the broader issue of rendition and detainees with [American] colleagues ... this can be counter-productive in terms of our concern about terrorism and radicalisation and so on."

The report also covers the issue of whether CIA flights may have moved secret prisoners through the UK. The ISC members believe that on four occasions CIA planes refuelled in Scotland, possibly on their way home after having moved prisoners between other countries, but that there is no verifiable case of a rendition target being moved via UK territory - probably not even the Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia. The British spooks did, however, say that they had to trust US assurances on this, as resources for checking every civil aircraft entering or leaving the UK were unavailable.

If one believes the British spies and their parliamentary overseers, then, they are the very soul of rectitude, holding up their hands in horror as they Americans swagger around the world with spurs chinking. But they're still pretty pleased to have the intel.

The full text of the report is here (pdf). The Government's response to it is here. In it, the government basically endorses the ISC's account and its conclusions.

There is one little point of interest, though. The ISC concluded at one stage that:

The Committee considers that "secret detention", without legal or other representation, is of itself mistreatment. Where there is a real possibility of "Rendition to Detention" to a secret facility, even if it would be for a limited time, then approval must never be given.

Her Majesty's ministers replied:

The Government notes the Committee’s view. The UK opposes any form of deprivation of liberty that amounts to placing a detained person outside the protection of the law.

Of course, if they were already beyond the protection of the law... ®

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