The Labour MP, Brian Donohoe, was emphatic. “I can give a cast-iron, categoric assurance” he said on BBC TV on Wednesday “that there have been no CIA flights whatsoever through Scottish airspace carrying prisoners at least since 1997, and I have just been to a meeting where the Foreign Secretary has personally assured me of this”.
Well, you can’t say fairer than that. As a rebuttal, it was copper-bottomed. The SNP MP Angus Robertson, who had just produced a dossier listing ten CIA “front” firms which had allegedly been using Scottish airspace, was left speechless - at least for a nanosecond or two. He gathered his wits and pointed out that the British government has been singularly reluctant to give the assurances now being offered by the MP for Central Ayrshire.
Unfortunately for Mr Donohoe, three hours later, the New Statesman magazine hit the streets. It produced a leaked foreign office memo making clear that the British government had been intensely reluctant to give any such guarantees. Indeed, the memo suggested that there was a classic spin operation underway designed to prevent the government having to give any assurances at all. "We should try to avoid getting drawn on detail," it says, and "try to move the debate on . . . underlining all the time the strong counter-terrorist rationale for close co-operation with the US". Not so much cast iron as teflon-coated.
The memo stressed the need to stick to the care fully-chosen wording of the statement made by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice on her recent European visit, when she insisted that America had not been allowing torture in its offshore interrogation centres. America’s definition of torture is a little more, well, ‘liberal’ than ours and seems to condone cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, outlawed in Britain under he UN Convention on torture. The New Statesman claimed this was firm evidence that the government had something serious to hide.
Now, of course, this memo didn’t actually prove anything. Certainly, it provided no evidence that America has been ferrying prisoners to secret torture centres using Scottish airspace. The trouble with leaked documents is that they always sound suspicious - especially when they are talking about news management.
However, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, didn’t entirely help when he tried to “move the story on” on Friday. "We have found no evidence”, he said responding to the New Statesman memo, “of detainees being rendered through the UK or overseas territory since 1997 where there were substantial grounds to believe there was a real risk of torture." Hmm.
That sounds very close to the words Brian Donohoe heard, but it doesn’t quite amount to a cast iron assurance. First of all, there is the ambiguity of the word “torture” (see above) and the rather passive “there no evidence”. The New Statesman document suggests that the government has been trying not to look too hard for any evidence unless it comes across something nasty in the woodshed. Let sleeping spooks lie.
But the government is going to have to do a very great deal more than it has done so far if this row is to die out. The reason is Europe. Not only has a European parliamentary committee launched an investigation into extraordinary rendition, at least two countries - Spain and Sweden - are contemplating legal action. Austria actually scrambled fighter jets when CIA rendition flight penetrated its airspace. There is profound suspicion throughout Europe at what has been going on and there is hostility toward Britain for apparently conniving in it.
What is not in doubt is that “extraordinary rendition” takes place and has done for many years. The CIA has long exploited the looser torture laws in north Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to allow “robust” interrogation of suspects like the suspected terrorist Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. There is no secrecy about it. Condoleezza Rice described rendition as “a lawful weapon” in December.
The US government has boasted of the quality of information gained from these interrogation centres, which run on similar lines to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have numerous documented cases of mainly Muslim men, such as the German national Khaled al Masri, who was apprehended in 2003 and transported for severe and degrading interrogation which involved beatings and drug injections. The US government has apologised to him.
The advantage of off shore rendition, as in Guantanamo, is that suspects cannot take the US government to court under its own laws. The US has admitted using practices as sexual humiliation, as demonstrated in Abu Ghraib, and the infamous “waterboarding” which involves simulated drowning of suspects. It says it no longer uses these techniques.
But if they don’t you have to ask why they are so keen on moving their detainees around the world to countries which do? The old justification was that the US wanted to “spread around” the spoils of interrogation and give other countries - especially in “new” Eastern Europe, a stake in the war against terrorism. There may indeed be something in that.
But following Guantanamo, this simply won’t do. The US really cannot continue with this covert human trafficking when it has proved itself so ill-prepared to secure the welfare of prisoners even in high-profile centres like Abu Ghraib, which used to be Saddam Hussein’s personal torture camp.
Scotland and in particular Prestwick Airport appear to have been used extensively in this traffic. Amnesty International has documented cases of CIA planes using Scottish airports as refuelling stops. The SNP’s Angus Robertson has compiled evidence of the CIA traffic from anonymous sources. It should be relatively easy for the British government to investigate these cases and set the public mind at rest.
But it will not do so without political pressure. The danger is that rendition fatigue is affecting the media and the political classes. There is a sense - I feel it myself - that we have heard it all before. So, the American’s are charged with mistreating terrorists suspects. What’s new? Hasn’t anyone seen 24?
But this is an important matter and one that affects Scotland directly. We cannot allow the suspicion to be spread abroad that we have allowed our country to connive in torture by proxy. The Scottish Parliament has been silent too long. It has been left to a few determined Green and SSP MSPs to try to get the Scottish Executive to take the issue on.
Once the European inquiries have run their course, Holyrood will have to take a serious look at this whole issue. Then we will have much more to go on. Perhaps Scottish airspace has not been used in these flights. Perhaps it is all plane spotter paranoia. But until we get those unequivocal assurances - of the kind that Brian Donohoe tried to give but couldn’t - then the suspicion will continue.