The US embassy in London was forced to issue a correction yesterday to an interview given by the ambassador, Robert Tuttle, in which he claimed America would not fly suspected terrorists to Syria, which has one of the worst torture records in the Middle East. A statement acknowledged media reports of a suspect taken from the US to Syria.
Torture is banned in the US but the CIA has been engaged in a policy of rendition, flying terrorist suspects to countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world where torture is commonplace.
Although Mr Tuttle, a Beverly Hills car dealer and major donor to George Bush's re-election campaign, has been ambassador in London only since the summer, he is proving to be accident-prone. Last month he vigorously denied British media reports that American forces used white phosphorus as a weapon in Iraq, only to be undercut by an admission from the Pentagon the next day.
Mr Tuttle gave an interview to the BBC Today programme on Thursday for broadcast yesterday morning. On Friday, the US embassy returned to the BBC with a lengthy statement of clarification, which was also broadcast yesterday at the end of the interview.
Asked by the BBC if the US dumped suspects in Syria, Mr Tuttle said: "I don't think there is any evidence that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria. There is no evidence of that. And I think we have to take what the secretary [Condoleezza Rice] says at face value. It is something very important, it is done very carefully and she has said we do not authorise, condone torture in any way, shape or form."
A US embassy spokeswoman contacted the BBC on Friday to say the ambassador "recognised that there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria but reiterated that the United States is not in a position to comment on specific allegations of intelligence activities that appear in the press".
The embassy spokeswoman "underscored that the president and secretary Rice have made clear that even in today's circumstances, where we are confronting a new kind of threat, the United States does not condone torture, its officials do not participate in such activities anywhere, and we do not hand over anyone in our custody to anywhere where we believe that they will be tortured. Full stop.
"We take our actions in the fight against terrorism with full respect for our international obligations and with full respect for the sovereignty of our partners."
The embassy's statement is close to an admission of at least one flight to Syria as it would be unlikely to embarrass the ambassador by referring to a media report it considered inaccurate.
Maher Arar, a Canadian software engineer of Syrian descent, says he was arrested in New York in 2002 and transferred to Jordan, then to Syria, where he said he was tortured. The US use of Syria for rendition sits uneasily with Washington's portrayal of the country as a pariah state. The Guardian has reported the CIA used British airports to refuel for rendition flights, which would contravene British law.
Asked if he knew whether the US had sought permission from Britain, Mr Tuttle said Ms Rice had maintained that rendition would respect each country's sovereignty. His reply would seem to imply the US had sought permission, possibly leaving the British government open to challenge.
US presidents tend to treat the post of ambassador to Britain more as a reward for political donors and allies than a job for diplomats, and Robert Tuttle fits this pattern. A Beverly Hills car dealer and major Republican party donor, he became ambassador this summer. He served in Ronald Reagan's White House and was ranked as a "pioneer" in George Bush's re-election campaign for raising more than £100,000 (£57,000).
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