Wikileaks cables nullify government disclaimer on US military transits at Shannon

Wikileaks cables appear to nullify the government’s disclaimer on US military transits at Shannon. By Fionn Dempsey.

Successive Irish governments have claimed they had no reason to doubt US diplomatic assurances that no renditions were occurring through Shannon Airport. This position allowed the Irish government to oblige US interests at the airport, while disclaiming responsibility for any potential criminal uses of Shannon by the US government. However, a close reading of recent Wikileaks cables suggests that the government strongly suspected US wrongdoing at Shannon.

The emerging picture on the government’s internal posture on Shannon follows the recent Concluding Observations from a human rights review by the UN Committee on Torture, where recommendations for a rigorous approach to the issue were coupled with strong criticisms of the Irish government’s lax attitude in the past. As Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman noted, the Committee on Torture’s position lines up with the consensus of international and domestic human rights bodies on the Irish stance at Shannon.

In the past, similar reports have been ignored. In December 2007, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing to review a report published by the Irish Human Rights Commission on the subject of extraordinary rendition and Shannon Airport. The report is robustly critical of the Irish government’s inaction, and brings a weight of legal opinion to bear on the subject. A State Department cable, released in full by the Guardian in December 2010, noted with satisfaction how the hearing on the IHRC’s report had sunk without a trace in the Irish media.

¶4. (C) … Highlighting the recent attention drawn to renditions by the IHRC report… the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the matter. The hearing, attended by POLOFFs, generally confirmed the Government’s view that there is no evidence that rendition flights have transited Ireland. The hearing, which was barely reported by the press, failed to achieve any traction for critics of American policy. End comment.

This lack of attention was all the better for both the American and Irish governments. The failure of the hearing to register is continuing to bear fruit for both entities, which – until a change in policy is seen – must now include then-opposition parties now in government. Had this hearing received more public scrutiny, so then might the Wikileaks cables of the last two weeks, which do far more than reveal an embarrassing disparity between what the Irish government said in private and what it said in public. The cables instead reveal that even by its own lax standards the Irish government was arguably in abrogation of its recognised duties to uphold and protect human rights.

Before the Cables

ihrc reportPrior even to the release of Wikileaks cables, the government’s position was clearly unsatisfactorily protective of human rights. The full significance of the cables is clear only in this context.

It is fruitful, first, to recap on what is in question when we speak of “extraordinary rendition”. That phrase tends, as it was designed to do, to give the impression of an official practice over which there can be civilized debate as to its legitimacy. This quite often has the effect of hiding the issue in plain sight. The IHRC’s report clarifies the term’s meaning unambiguously:

The term ‘extraordinary rendition’ is a violation of language. It is a euphemism, a deliberately opaque phrase to describe the forcible kidnapping of an individual by the agents of a State and the transfer of that person to a secret prison in another State where s/he can be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and be interrogated and detained indefinitely without recourse to the courts, to lawyers or to any of the mechanisms set up to protect the human rights of an individual. ‘Extraordinary rendition’ may lead to ‘enforced disappearances’ whereby an individual is not heard of again. It is a practice designed to circumvent and set at naught the human rights principles and practices that have developed over decades to protect the rights of those under investigation or in detention.
Extraordinary Rendition – A Review of Ireland’s Human Rights Obligations, p.7

Nor is the practice of extraordinary rendition a myth, or some unsubstantiable rumour. It is sometimes treated in the abstract by the mainstream press, giving the impression that controversy over its use is hypothetical or academic. But it is beyond question that it was practiced under President Bush, and continues to be practiced under President Obama. Since 2001 the CIA has been abducting people from European countries, chaining them spreadeagled to the floors of chartered airplanes, with the consent or cooperation of European authorities, and whisking them away to secret prisons and torture havens where human rights no longer apply and where they are summarily forgotten about by their governments and compatriots.

The practice is so well established as to have a “circuit” – a network of airports in cooperative European states, connected to “interrogation” sites in Eastern Europe and North Africa, and the infamous Abu Ghraib, Baghram and Guantanamo prisons. Successive commission investigations over the last 6 years, within the UN, the Council of Europe, the European Union and by the Irish Human Rights Commission, as well as a swathe of NGOs, gather the evidence in painstaking detail. Names like Khalid El-Masri, or Maher Arar lead us to those horror cases where abductees have turned out – after enduring months of torture – to have been demonstrably innocent. The often unacknowledged reality is that many thousands of people who have been disappeared into the black hole of America’s global detention programme, since they have never seen a courtroom, are presumptively just as innocent.

The question is not over whether the United States kidnaps people and tortures them. The question is instead whether Irish authorities can be certain that the United States, which is allowed to use Shannon Airport without interference or oversight by the Irish authorities, isn’t using that airport as a conduit for its rendition programme. The Irish government has only the assurances of American diplomats to go on. Against these assurances weighs a raft of material, introduced in a series of articles in Village Magazine, giving rise to conscientious suspicion about the use of the airport.

On the strength of the assurances, however, the Irish government has refused to do any more to ensure compliance. It has resolved to respect the privacy of chartered CIA planes at Shannon – many of which have been directly and incontrovertibly linked to kidnappings elsewhere – and to do nothing to ascertain for itself that no prisoner would be ‘rendered’ through Shannon.

The IHRC consistently argues that to ensure that rendition is not happening, diplomatic assurances are not adequate. They are not enforceable by law, and have been shown to be misleading in the past. The prohibition of torture and other crimes requires by law a proactive approach to the possibility of their commission. A regime of inspections is required by law. This basic sentiment is mirrored across the spectrum of human rights bodies. As the Council of Europe High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles notes:

The weakness inherent in the practice of diplomatic assurances lies in the fact that where there is a need for such assurances, there is clearly an acknowledged risk of torture or ill-treatment.
CommDH(2004) 13, 8 July 2004, para 9

But rather than recognise this – that assurances are sought against a background of prima facie suspicion – the Irish government prefers to pretend that no suspicion exists until it is raised by “evidence.” This was the consensus among government and opposition officials at the 2007 Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing, with only Michael D Higgins and David Norris dissenting. The reasoning is perfectly circular. On account of the lack of evidence, the Irish government is unprepared to put itself in the position where it might find some.

From whom could “evidence” possibly come that might transform this consensus? Since the activities in question are carried out by a clandestine organisation, and since the state has erected perimeter fences, increased perimeter security, and prosecuted private citizens who tresspass near the airport (on this, see ¶5. of 06DUBLIN1020), the only party that could fairly be expected to raise evidence is the party empowered by law to perform searches on transiting flights: An Garda Síochána. At the behest of the US government, Irish authorities have undertaken to ensure that nobody else will have a chance:

4. (C) … The Ambassador emphasized the goal of preventing future actions by Irish citizens to disrupt US military operations at Shannon. Ahern replied that airport security had been upgraded following the Shannon Five verdict and that the protest movement appeared to be losing steam, as evident is a sparsely attended October 28 rally at Shannon.

To require “evidence” from the private citizen before instituting an inspection regime in this situation is simply to refuse to institute such a regime. The lack of evidence – if there was any to find – cannot be considered in isolation from a government which did very little to look for any.

This was the state of play prior to the release of the State Department cables. The Irish government had issued to the IHRC a list of diplomatic communications on rendition with the US government.

  • It claimed in this list to have made its commitment to human rights clear to the United States in diplomatic meetings, and to have stated the government’s objections to extraordinary rendition.
  • It claimed to have received categorical and specific assurances, from diplomats and high-ranking officials in the US administration, concerning the Shannon stopover.
  • It claimed that it had no reason to disbelieve these assurances. It had no reason to suspect, and did not in fact suspect, that anything untoward was happening in Shannon Airport.

This was the Irish government’s position on US use of Shannon Airport. Except that, apparently, it wasn’t. Diplomatic cables now available to the Irish public either cast doubt on this story or undermine it entirely.

What the cables tell us

The full complement of cables on this subject has, as yet, been made available only to the Irish Independent, and the paper has chosen not to publish the cables. It is therefore impossible to rule out that at some point the Irish government did, in fact, iterate to the US government the Irish position that the practice of rendition is abhorred and condemned by the Irish state. Doubt is cast, however, on one of the particular occasions on which the government claims to have done so. In its letter to the IHRC, the government claimed the following:

In late November 2004 a meeting was held with the US Embassy at the Department of Foreign Affairs at which there was a further full discussion of allegations that US aircraft involved in the illegal transfer of prisoners had transited Shannon Airport. The Irish side made clear that any such transits would be a matter of the utmost gravity.  Appendix III to the IHRC report: Summary of Diplomatic Assurances provided to the Government

Insight into this meeting is now provided by the Wikileaks cables. 04DUBLIN1739, otherwise called “Shannon: Goi Under Pressure But No Change In Policy,” describes the representations to the Dublin Embassy by an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose name has been redacted. In it, he makes clear what is meant by “a matter of utmost gravity.”

¶1. (S) … He cautioned that if it were ever to be discovered that the US was not good on its word or had transported prisoners through Shannon in the context of the war on terrorism, there would be enormous political pressure on the government. As for the legal issue, he said that were a plane to include Shannon in an itinerary that also included transporting prisoners, GOI lawyers might be forced to conclude that the GOI itself was in violation of torture conventions… ¶2. (S) … XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that there is no/no change pending to Irish policy allowing US use of Shannon, but reiterated that some ministers feel they are going out on a limb defending US use of Shannon and that the GOI is counting on the fact that the word of the U.S.G is good and that the US has not and will not transfer prisoners through Shannon or engage in any other activity that would place the government in legal or political difficulty.

This passage epitomises the Irish government’s representations to the US government throughout the available cables. There is little indication that what worries our government about extraordinary rendition is the circumvention of the most basic human rights. Instead, the government is worried about how violations might inconvenience it in the next election, or impose liability on it. There are numerous examples of this, and no examples of a strong advocacy for human rights. For example, in a 2004 conference between Bertie Ahern and two US senators, it is not the US that is to be criticised for permitting or overseeing prisoner abuse, but the Irish public that must be excused for having not yet ‘gotten over’ it.

¶4. (C) … PM Ahern said that Iraq must be a success and that all must help make that happen. Politicians, the prime minister said, were “getting over” their disagreement with the US, but the public has not, yet, especially as regards Guantanamo and Abu Graib.

Perhaps the crucial example is to be found in a representation made to the ambassador by Dermot Ahern on the morning of the 2007 IHRC hearing. Later that day, a Department of Foreign Affairs official was to assure the Committee of the utmost commitment of the Minister to the protection of human rights. The US ambassador, however, makes this observation:

¶3. (C) Ahern noted that he had “put his neck on the chopping block” and would pay a severe political price if it ever turned out that rendition flights had entered Ireland or if one was discovered in the future.

dermot ahern

Doubts exist, then, over the government’s purported strong line on rendition. Evidence of the quality of assurance received by the Irish government is no more forthcoming. The same DFA official, in the 2007 hearing, characterised these assurances thusly:

[T]he Government has received in a European context uniquely clear and categoric assurances from the US that no extraordinary rendition has taken place through Ireland. These assurances have been repeatedly confirmed by the US side.

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs Debate: Extraordinary Rendition: Discussion with the Irish Human Rights Commission and Departments.

Once again, it is impossible, as of yet, to say for certain that this statement accurately represents the quality of the assurances from the US government. The only assurance hitherto visible in the cables is far less inspiring. In 2004, controversy erupted over a Gulfstream V jet, known to have been involved in CIA renditions elsewhere, which had changed its tail number. When questions were raised in the Dáil in 2004 over this, the government complained to the US embassy about the pressure it was under. The deputy chief of mission gave the following assurance in respect of this:

¶2. (S) The DCM told XXXXXXXXXXXX that the USG would be in no position to respond to the detailed questions asked about particular planes, such as the Gulfstream jet, but stood by its commitment to abide by Irish law, consult with the Irish and avoid actions that would bring embarrassment to the Irish government.

This is the only diplomatic assurance so far publicly available in the cables. Reference, both in the cables and out of them, is made to a December 1st 2005 meeting in Washington DC between Dermot Ahern and Condoleezza Rice, during which some of the strongest assurances were received. A cable sent from the State Department about this meeting, SECSTATE221875, has not yet been released by the Irish Independent, but was declassified in almost completely redacted form by the US government. The issue of Shannon is not to be found among the unredacted content.

It might still be argued that the government had “no grounds to suspect” rendition flights were occurring, and in fact did not suspect them. It might take creative reasoning to see how our government could not have at least a conscientious suspicion, but at least, without suspicion, its argument flies. Liability for complicity in potential crimes would be avoided. By its own inadequate standards, at least, the government would be in the right.

This is, unfortunately, expressly false. If it ever turns out that rendition flights did occur through Shannon Airport, and some victim of US torture has a case against Ireland, the Irish government can no longer rely on the claim that it had no grounds to suspect, and in fact did not suspect, that rendition was occurring. Its public statements to this effect are disproven by the diplomatic cables. The overwhelming impression given by the cables is that the Irish government suspected very strongly that rendition was occurring. Not only did it do nothing on foot of these suspicions, as outlined earlier, but it conferred in private with US diplomats, gave every benefit of the doubt, and in fact coordinated with the US government on the public relations strategy by which it would dispel public discontent over Shannon.

In 04DUBLIN1739, the anonymous DFA official explicitly states that the Gulfstream jet incident had given rise to suspicion within the Irish government. Even when a suspicion is created that human rights abuses are occurring the Irish government petitions the suspect, ad hoc, for a benign explanation, rather than treating the suspicion as grounds for investigation. The explanation is then taken “on faith.”

¶1. (S)… The political problem is that the government’s defense of Shannon rests heavily on friendship with the US and the Irish government saying it relies on the “good faith” of the U.S.G. He said the allegations that the tail number has been changed raise suspicions and caused confusion within the GOI, along with the hope that there is a “benign” explanation about why the tail number was changed.

Later in the cable, the same official suggests a bilateral policy that is to resurface throughout the Shannon cables: that the US government harmonise its story with that of the Irish government. The foremost priority ascribed to the Irish government in this cable is apparently not ascertaining whether human rights abuses are occurring; it is getting the story straight.

He said that the government consistently says the same thing and that this must not be shown later “to have holes in it.” He also said it is critical that no “blue water” be found between statements that Irish and US officials make. He said activists dissect statements and take any divergence as a sign that something is amiss.

bertie ahernThe impression is no different in 04DUBLIN1770, in which Bertie Ahern meets with a delegation from the US Congress, along with the ambassador. As reported by Harry Browne, the then Taoiseach makes clear that Shannon is beginning to raise worries. The later recorded exchange between Sen John McCain and the ambassador again makes clear that the shared priority is avoiding embarrassing the allied government:

¶2. (S)… [T]he prime minister said that while there are no plans to alter arrangements with the US at Shannon, the subject is “beginning to worry people.” He referenced his government’s repeated defense of the US military’s use of Shannon to parliament, in which he and other ministers have referred to US assurances that enemy combatants have not transited Shannon enroute to Guantanamo or elsewhere and
will not without consultation. “Am I all right on this?” he asked the ambassador. Following the meeting, Sen McCain told the ambassador he plans to raise Shannon with the Administration when he returns to Washington and will underscore how very important it is that the US not ever be caught in a lie to a close friend and ally.

The clearest indications that the government could not have believed US diplomatic assurances are to be found in the exchanges between the embassy and Dermot Ahern. In a 2006 ‘tour d’horizon’ meeting late in the year, the then-Minister indicates that the avoidance of “surprises” is a shared objective of the two governments. The ambassador acknowledges this proposal with the explicit undertaking of coordinating on bilateral PR.

3. (C) In a November 1 introductory discussion with the Ambassador, Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern urged bilateral cooperation to avoid “surprises” regarding US military use of Shannon Airport… The Ambassador expressed appreciation for US military use of Shannon, and he offered the U.S.G’s best efforts to avoid missteps and to coordinate on any necessary media strategy.

A year later scrutiny of the government’s treatment of Shannon was at an all-time high, on foot of sustained investigative work by Irish and UK journalists. The Minister, apparently agitated by this, breaks diplomatic etiquette, and explicitly suggests that the US government agree to a piece of inspection-theatre. The ambassador understands this suggestion as one intended to “provide cover” for Irish government officials in the event of rendition flights through Shannon coming to light. That Ahern would be so brazen as to ask for concessions that might provide cover for himself indicates that he considers it a material possibility that – despite assurances – rendition flights are occurring through Shannon Airport. The ambassador himself makes much of Ahern’s anxiety in the meeting, perhaps himself fishing for more information from the State Department.

¶3. (C) Ahern noted that he had “put his neck on the chopping block” and would pay a severe political price if it ever turned out that rendition flights had entered Ireland or if one was discovered in the future. He stated that he “could use a little more information” about the flights, musing that it might not be a bad idea to allow the random inspection of a few planes to proceed, which would provide cover if a rendition flight ever surfaced. He seemed quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refueled at Shannon Airport before or after conducting renditions elsewhere.

¶4. (C) Comment: While Ahern’s public stance on extraordinary renditions is rock-solid, his musings during the meeting seemed less assured. This was the only issue during the meeting that agitated him; he spent considerable time dwelling on it. Ahern seemed to be fishing for renewed assurances from the Ambassador that no rendition flights have transited Ireland, or would transit in the future.

Reading through the Wikileaks cables, it is very difficult to sustain a credible belief that the Irish government did not suspect wrongdoing. At their most subtle, the representations of the Irish government adopt a See No Evil policy. At their least subtle, they appear to treat rendition flights through Shannon as a material likelihood. Rather than spurring the government to adopt the policy recommended by the IHRC, this likelihood is instead grounds for getting more and more embroiled in what the government seemed increasingly suspicious was a criminal conspiracy.

This contradictory posture is at the core of the Irish government’s policy on Shannon stopover flights. It explains why, in public, ad hoc skepticism about any wrongdoing always coexisted with a general credulity about US assurances. And it makes the insistence of successive Irish governments that human rights are a priority for the Irish state rather less plausible.

If the diplomatic cables are anything to go on, our elected officials understand just enough to know that they must appear to care about human rights, but do not appear to understand why they are important at all. They will much more readily worry about political consequences, or legal liability. In their lack of awareness, they have left themselves – and by extension, all of us – open to the possibility of being implicated in some of gravest crimes there are laws for. For this reason it is to be hoped that the Fine Gael/Labour coalition will heed the recommendations of the Committee Against Torture, and implement more stringent safeguards against possible US wrongdoing in Shannon Airport.

Image comp top: Eadaoin O'Sullivan; main image via Walt Jabsco.