UK overruled on Lebanon spy flights from Cyprus, WikiLeaks cables reveal

Americans dismissed ‘bureaucratic’ Foreign Office concern that Lebanese Hezbollah suspects might be tortured

Richard Norton-Taylor and David Leigh

RAF Akrotiri at Limassol, Cyprus. WikiLeaks cables claim the US brushed aside British objections about secret spy flights from the base Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

American officials swept aside British protests about secret US spy flights taking place from the UK’s Cyprus airbase, the leaked diplomatic cables reveal.

Labour ministers said they feared making the UK an unwitting accomplice to torture, and were upset about rendition flights going on behind their backs.

The use of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus for American U2 spy plane missions over Hezbollah locations in Lebanon – missions that have never been disclosed until now – prompted an acrimonious series of exchanges between British officials and the US embassy in London, according to the cables released by WikiLeaks. The then foreign secretary David Miliband is quoted as saying, unavailingly, “policymakers needed to get control of the military.

Ministers demanded a full “audit trail” of covert operations, codenamed Cedar Sweep, amid growing public concern in the UK about unacknowledged CIA rendition flights and alleged UK complicity in torture. The planes gathered intelligence that was then allegedly passed to the Lebanese authorities to help them track down Hezbollah militants. In the past, such flights have also been carried out on Israel’s behalf by the Americans.

As the 2008 row escalated, the US rejected the British concerns over torture in unequivocal terms, with one senior official at the embassy in London baldly stating in one cable: “We cannot take a risk-avoidance approach to CT [counter-terrorism] in which the fear of potentially violating human rights allows terrorism to proliferate in Lebanon.”

The cables disclose that as well as the Lebanon missions, U2s from Akrotiri were gathering intelligence over Turkey and northern Iraq. The information was secretly supplied to the Turkish authorities in an operation codenamed Highland Warrior. The British protested that “in both cases, intelligence product is intended to be passed to third-party governments”.

On 18 April 2008, Britain demanded the US embassy provide full details of all flights so ministers could tell whether they “put the UK at risk of being complicit in unlawful acts … This is a very important point for ministers”.

US diplomat, Maura Connelly, cabled: “We understand that these additional precautionary measures stem from the February revelation that the US government transited renditioned persons through Diego Garcia without UK permission and HMG’s [her majesty's government's] resultant need to ensure it is not similarly blindsided in the future.”

She complained to Washington that the demands were “burdensome” and “an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy”.

Will Jessett, then director of counter-terrorism at the ministry of defence, had sent a letter warning that “the use of UK bases for covert or potentially controversial missions” on behalf of Lebanon or Turkey meant it was “important for us to be satisfied that HMG is not indirectly aiding the commission of unlawful acts by those governments”.

The letter warned that other states, particularly Cyprus, might well object should they find out. Ministers therefore wanted the US to submit each time “an assessment of any legal or human rights implications”.

On 24 April, the embassy sent a cable to Washington entitled: “Houston, we have a problem”. It stated: “HMG ministers are adamant.”

The embassy “pushed back hard” on demands for a full “audit trail” of spy flights. But in what appears to have been a heated dispute, the British responded by detailing other US “oversights”.

“Contacts cited instances in which operations Highland Warrior and Cedar Sweep had been conducted from the UK sovereign base areas of Akrotiri without the proper ministerial approvals … In addition, Highland Warrior had raised tensions with the Cypriots, jeopardising the UK’s hold on Akrotiri.

There were “other lapses that proved embarrassing to HMG (ie renditions through Diego Garcia and improperly documented shipments of weaponry through Prestwick airport)”.

The US used Prestwick in 2006 as a staging post to ship laser-guided bombs to Israel, causing British protests. The Israelis wanted the munitions to attack Hezbollah bunkers in Lebanon.

The US embassy concluded: “A new element of distrust has crept into the US-UK mil-mil relationship.

“The renditions revelation proved highly embarrassing for the Brown government. The British proposal … may be disproportionate but is almost certainly an indication of the Brown government’s sensitivity … at a time Brown is facing increasing domestic political woes.”

A month later Britain was still, according to the US, “piling on concerns and conditions” about human rights, saying that although junior minister Kim Howells was making the decisions, Miliband was being kept informed.

British officials warned that ministerial concerns “could jeopardise future use of British territory”.

US patience finally snapped when a Foreign Office official, John Hillman, passed on the message that “even the [US] state department’s own human rights report had documented cases of torture and arbitrary arrest by the Lebanese armed forces”.

Hillman urged the US to ensure the welfare of prisoners in Lebanon “if there were any risk that detainees captured with the help of Cedar Sweep intel could be tortured”.

At this point Richard LeBaron, charges d’affaires at the London embassy, cabled Washington that human rights concerns could not be allowed to get in the way of counter-terrorism operations. Britain’s demands were “not only burdensome but unrealistic”, he said, proposing “high-level approaches” to call the British to heel.

“Excessive conditions such as described above will hinder, if not obstruct, our co-operative counter-terrorism efforts,” he said.

Senior Bush administration official John Rood stepped in and the Foreign Office’s director general for defence and intelligence, Mariot Leslie, hastened to placate him.

The clash was “unnecessarily confrontational”, she told him. “Leslie expressed annoyance at the additional conditions conveyed by the FCO working level,” the cable states. “She had not been aware beforehand that such a message would be conveyed. In fact she regretted the tenor of the discussions had turned prickly, and underscored HMG appreciation for US-UK military and intelligence co-operation.”

She reassured him that US was not actually expected to check on detained terrorists.

“Ministers had merely wanted to impress upon the US government that they take the human rights considerations seriously.

“She noted that HMG ‘desperately needs’ [Cyprus] for its own intelligence gathering and operations and was committed to keeping them available to the US (and France).

“However, the Cypriots are hypersensitive about the British presence there, she said, and could ‘turn off the utilities at any time’. That, combined with the ‘toxic mix’ of the rendition flights through Diego Garcia, has resulted in tremendous parliamentary, public and media pressure on HMG.”

Leslie stuck to her guns on one point, saying the US embassy would still have to put in full written applications for future spy missions because “Miliband believed that ‘policymakers needed to get control of the military’.” The cable stated: “Leslie … was very frank that HMG did object to some of what the US government does (eg renditions).”

British ministers loyally kept these objections about the US to themselves, however, despite coming uinder repeated attack from the UK media for alleged complicity in the dispatch of Islamist prisoners to places where they would be tortured.

US use of Cyprus has always been controversial. Relations between London and Washington were strained at the time of the attacks on Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war by Ted Heath’s decision to adopt a policy of strict neutrality. The then prime minister refused to allow the US to use Britain’s electronic intercept and air bases on Cyprus .

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/01/wikileaks-cables-cyprus-rendition-torture, 2 December 2010

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