Torture and the use of Shannon

British Foreign Office documents reveal US and UK complicity in torture and raise further questions on the use of Shannon by the CIA. By David Shanks


The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has released documents which show US and UK complicity in the torture of terror suspects in Uzbekistan. The documents have not been published officially in the UK because of restrictions under the Official Secrets Act.

In a confidential letter from Craig Murray, from Tashkent (capital of Uzbekistan) in July 2004, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he states: "We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services via the US".

The letter states: "I gather a recent interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material".

The letter goes on to reveal: "on behalf of the intelligence services, Mathew Kydd said that they found some of the material [obtained under torture in Uzbekistan] very useful indeed, with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood".

It states: "I understand that the meeting [convened to discuss receipt of material obtained under torture from suspects in Uzbekistan] decided to continue to obtain torture material. I understand that the principal argument deployed was that the intelligence material disguises the precise source, ie does not ordinarily reveal the name of the individual who is tortured. Indeed this is true – the material is marked with a euphemism such as 'From detainee briefing'. The argument runs that if the individual is not named, we cannot prove he was tortured".

Another of the documents is a note, dated 13 March 2003, from the legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Michael Wood, to a senior official in the FCO, Linda Duffield, which advises that no offence arises from the receipt or possession of information obtained under torture, under the UN Convention on Torture. This note arose from an expression of concern by Craig Murray, while ambassador to Uzbekistan, that possession or receipt of such information was an offence.

The documents have been disclosed by Murray after the Foreign Office asked him to remove them from a forthcoming book about his ambassadorial experiences. (In 2002 he highlighted the case of the imprisonment of the mother of a man tortured to death with boiling water. In that year he argued strenuously in the first memo against hosting Uzbek President Islam Karimov in London.)

The manuscript of the book had to be approved by his former employers, who have had it for several months. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has denied reports that it had blocked publication of Murder in Samarkand until sensitive material was edited out.

During his turbulent mission in Uzbekistan as British ambassador, 18 disciplinary charges were brought against Craig Murray. These charges included granting UK visas in exchange for sex. He was later exonerated but not before the charges were leaked to the press.

Last month a British Law Lords ruling upheld the view of Sir Michael Wood that evidence elicited by torture, no matter by whom, is inadmissible in British courts.

In November the British media were gagged under the Official Secrets Act from reporting further on a leaked "top secret" Downing Street memo revealing that President Bush wanted to bomb the Arab al-Jazeera TV station because he did not like its coverage from behind rebel lines of the Fallujah assault by US troops.

That memo arose from an April 2004 White House meeting with Tony Blair, who, it is claimed, talked the president out of the idea. The alleged Cabinet Office leaker and the recipient, who worked for a former Labour MP, are to appear in a resumed Bow Street Magistrates Court case on Tuesday, 10 January.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said Britain condemns the use of torture and does not practice it. But intelligence agents, a spokesman was reported as saying, routinely assessed the likely source of information they received and "took into account" the reliability of the information under the circumstances.

On 18 March, 2003 Murray wrote: "As seen from Tashkent, US policy is not much focused on democracy or freedom. It is about oil, gas and hegemony. In Uzbekistan the US pursues those ends through supporting a ruthless dictatorship.

"Last year the US gave half a billion dollars in aid to Uzbekistan, about a quarter of it military aid. Bush and [former US secretary of state] Powell repeatedly hail Karimov as a friend and ally. Yet this regime has at least seven thousand prisoners of conscience; it is a one-party state without freedom of speech, without freedom of media, without freedom of movement, without freedom of assembly, without freedom of religion. It practices, systematically, the most hideous tortures on thousands. Most of the population lives in conditions precisely analogous with medieval serfdom."

The contents of the documents are relevant to the debate about the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects to countries that practice torture. As revealed by Village, US civilian-registered aircraft, operated or leased by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have landed at Shannon airport on the return leg of so-called "rendition" missions.

Rendition is a US policy, stated as such by senior officials, in which prisoners in the "war on terror" are transferred to foreign countries for interrogation and/or trial.

In numerous reported incidences, and in the two documented cases where "rendition flights" have returned to base in the US via Shannon, the prisoners claimed they were tortured after being handed over by US agents to the foreign authorities.

(Cases where rendition involves the subsequent torture of the prisoner during interrogation are commonly known as "extraordinary rendition", though the use of this term has not been recognised by the US administration.)

As Village has reported previously, such rendition flights have landed at Shannon at least 85 times in the past five years. Correlation of dates and registration numbers of flights on flight logs, plane-spotters' websites and in official reports revealed that two of the aircraft which repeatedly visited Shannon were involved in "extraordinary renditions", and had returned to the US from these missions via Shannon.

The Department of Transport has previously confirmed to Village that aircraft identified by Village as having been used in CIA renditions were registered as civilian aircraft and had landed in Ireland without seeking authorisation. The Department said it had "not received any information regarding the purpose of these flights as the flights were of a technical nature".

The Government has said it has no evidence of prisoners being transported via Irish airports, and has accepted the assurances given by the US that it has not and would not transport prisoners via Irish airports or airspace. However, it has not addressed the policy issues of whether it accepts that covert aircraft being operated by the CIA are posing as civilian aircraft in using Irish airports, and whether it accepts the evidence that these flights may be en route to or returning from extraordinary rendition missions.

Dermot Ahern told the Dail in October 2005 (and has repeated these assurances since): "If a government of the stature of the US government, which has such a connection with this country, gives us an absolute assurance in this regard, we accept it".

The US Embassy has confirmed that the State Department has provided such assurances to the Government.

The leader of the Seanad, Mary O'Rourke, recently announced that a special committee of the Seanad would investigate the use of Shannon by CIA flights. The Government has also said it would respond to a request by the Council of Europe for all information on such flights passing through European airports.

Mary O'Rourke told the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs on 20 December 2005 that the terms of reference for a cross-party group were being finalised and would be agreed by the middle of January.

The committee was called for by David Norris. A similar cross-party committee has already been set up in the UK's House of Commons.

Mary O'Rourke told the Foreign Affairs committee she was "totally of the view that there have been incidents of which we would not be proud as a country". O'Rourke said people "want to know exactly what has happened".

"Of late, particularly since the rendition issue appeared on the agenda, they want to know where, when, why and how. I do not see any conflict between desiring the truth and our being a friend to the United States and its being a friend to us. I do not understand arguments that, if one feels fine about the United States and it feels fine about us, we should keep our mouths shut."

The terms of reference for the Seanad select committee were being prepared "in light of the fact that there is growing democratic unease and disquiet among various countries right across Europe", she said.

A memo prepared for the Oirechtas foreign affairs committee members by the Department of Foreign Affairs International Security Policy Section states that government policy on so-called "extraordinary renditions" is that the Government "has not and will not permit any flight engaged in extraordinary rendition to pass through Ireland".

Senator David Norris said this briefing document should have been withdrawn.

"The Government has permitted at least one flight - but probably several - which was engaged in extraordinary rendition through the national airspace", he said.

"The flight may not have been on the way out, but it was certainly on the way back and it means the statement that the Government has not permitted a flight 'engaged in extraordinary rendition' is untrue."

Minster for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern told reporters in Washington on 1 December 2005 that nobody had come forward with evidence in relation to CIA flights passing through Ireland, and that if any evidence was produced it would immediately be investigated. However, a complaint was made at Shannon Garda station over a year ago, and there has been no apparent investigation since.

Tim Hourigan, a peace activist who monitors flights through Shannon, handed in a lengthy written complaint to gardai at Shannon on 2 October 2004, which detailed the movements of CIA flights through Shannon, as subsequently reported in Village and elsewhere.

Ahern said of the CIA flights through Shannon: "We are talking completely hypothetically as it is because I have said publicly in Ireland that if any one has any evidence in relation to any of these flights please bring them forward and we would immediately have them investigated under the laws of our State in relation to any operation that might happen within our State. Nobody has come forward in that respect so we're talking totally hypothetically."

As well as the Council of Europe inquiry, there are judicial probes into CIA rendition flights going on in Spain, Germany and Italy.

Sweden previously completed a similar inquiry, which criticised Swedish authorities for cooperating with the US in the rendition of two Egyptian asylum seekers to Egypt, where, according to Human Rights Watch, they were subsequently tortured. The Swedish inquiry identified the aircraft involved, which has passed through Ireland on numerous occasions.

The US have stated that they do not torture suspects and do not endorse the use of torture to procure information, but the administration has sought to narrow the common definition of torture to exclude what they now call "enhanced interrogation techniques", which they maintain are allowable.

A US senator, Kit Bond, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, told Newsweek recently that such techniques had worked with one al-Qaida operative, Khalid Shaikh, in producing information which foiled an unnamed terrorist plot, but did not provide further detail. Newsweek cited an unnamed "career CIA official" who disputed the use of such information generally. "Whatever briefing they got was probably not truthful", said the official. "And there's no way of knowing whether what good information they got could not have been obtained by more traditional means."

Additional reporting: Colin Murphy

The three documents Village has received are published in full on our website: See also:,