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How Britain Enthusiastically Teamed Up with Bush's Horrific Torture and Rendition Agenda

Britain and the US stood shoulder to shoulder in the war on terror -- even when working the dark side.

Editor's Note: The following is Part II of an excerpt from Ian Cobain's new book,  A Secret History of Torture (Counterpoint Press, 2012). Copyright 2012, Portobello Books. All Rights Reserved. Click here to read Part I.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair took a train from Brighton to London, where he issued a statement that pledged unswerving support for the US. He described terrorism as "the new evil in our world," perpetrated by people with no regard for the sanctity of human life. There was now to be a battle between the free world and terrorism, he said. "We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world."

Quietly, Britain pledged logistics support for the rendition program, which resulted in the CIA’s Gulfstream V and other jets becoming frequent visitors to British airports en route to the agency’s secret prisons. Over the next four years, a 26-strong flight of rendition aircraft operated by the CIA used UK airports at least 210 times. Dozens of other private executive jets that the agency chartered were also regular visitors to the UK. Nineteen British airports and RAF bases were used, including Heathrow, Birmingham, Luton, Bournemouth and Belfast. The agency’s favorite destination was Prestwick in Scotland, which it used more than 75 times. One CIA pilot described Prestwick as an ideal refueling stop. "It’s an 'ask no questions' type of place, and you don’t need to give them any advance notice you’re coming."

The US authorities also asked the UK government for permission to build a large prison on Diego Garcia, the British territory in the Indian Ocean that operates as a US military base. A Royal Marines officer made some preliminary plans, before the project was dropped, for logistical rather than legal reasons. Diego Garcia continued to be used as a stopover for rendition flights, however, and senior United Nations officials believe that a number of prisoners were held and interrogated there between 2002 and 2003.

The UK would do more than offer mere logistics support to the rendition program, however. It would "perform," in Bush’s words, by becoming an enthusiastic participant in the rendition and torture program. As in the summer of 1940, its first victims would be British. But as then and since, Britain would enshroud its use of torture in the greatest possible secrecy.

In October 2001, when the United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qaida, it was inevitable that a small number of those captured on the battlefield would be British.

For more than a decade, MI5 had been aware that British Muslims had been traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan to receive training at camps run by al-Qaida or associated groups. Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, operated some of the camps, and graduates were encouraged to take up arms against Indian forces in Kashmir. Before al-Qaida began targeting the West in the late 1990s, MI5 saw these trips as evidence of little more than exuberant adventurism among a small section of young British Muslim males: a form of jihadi tourism that posed no threat to the UK. All that changed after 9/11, when both MI5 and MI6 became anxious to extract as much information as possible from any British prisoners in order to assess the al-Qaida threat.

It was not long before prisoners were being taken during battles in the north and southeast of Afghanistan. Many more foreign fighters were captured while attempting to slip across the border into Pakistan. Hundreds were handed over to US forces by Afghan and Pakistani bounty hunters, who received large bundles of dollars for every non-Afghan they captured.

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