The United States has prevented British MPs from obtaining documents that would reveal the extent of UK involvement with the CIA's rendition program, which has prisoners sent to nations that practice torture for interrogation. A federal judge cited language in the Freedom of Information Act that exempts "a foreign government entity" from access to information. The group requesting the documents was a committee of British MPs.
Tony Lloyd, a deputy chair of the committee and Labour MP for Manchester Central, opposed the ruling. "It's an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information," he said.
British politicians are facing increasing pressure over this issue since news surfaced earlier this week, potentially linking the UK with the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj to Libya.
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The US is preventing MPs from seeing evidence of British involvement in the CIA's practice of secretly sending terror suspects to prisons where they faced torture.
A federal judge in Washington has used a particular section of the US Freedom of Information Act to block a request from the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition chaired by the senior Conservative backbencher Andrew Tyrie.
The judge, Ricardo Urbina, ruled that the information must be withheld on the grounds that the parliamentary body was part of a "foreign government entity". Tony Lloyd, a deputy chair of the committee and Labour MP for Manchester Central, described the ruling as "odd". He said it seemed as though the US was looking for an excuse to withhold the information.
It would have been more understandable had the US blocked the request on national security grounds, Lloyd said. "It's an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information," he said. To claim that a parliamentary body was part of the British state was "not acceptable", Lloyd added.
Defending the position of the CIA, which did not want the relevant documents disclosed, the judge ruled: "Because the court concludes that the plaintiffs are representatives or subdivisions of a foreign government entity, the court grants the defendants' motion and denies the plaintiffs' motion."
The parliamentary group requested records that would determine Britain's role in assisting the US by "facilitating such practices, including allowing over-flight or refuelling of planes through or on UK territory or airspace, or by allowing UK territories to be used to hold detainees."
The group referred to statements by the former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband saying Diego Garcia, the US base on Britain's Indian Ocean territory, was used for extraordinary renditions.
The judge rejected the group's argument that its members acted as individuals and not public officials. By that logic any foreign leader, including the late Kim Jong-il, could submit Freedom of Information Act requests under their individual capacity, the judge said.
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The Independent: CIA wins fight to keep MPs in dark on rendition
American intelligence agencies including the CIA and the FBI have won a court ruling allowing them to withhold evidence from British MPs about suspected UK involvement in "extraordinary rendition" – the secret arrests and alleged torture of terror suspects.
A judge in Washington DC granted permission for key US intelligence bodies, including the highly sensitive National Security Agency, to exploit a loophole in US freedom of information legislation which bars the release of documentation to any body representing a foreign government.
Downing Street underlined the gravity of the torture claims yesterday when it urged police to interview former Labour ministers as part of an investigation into the alleged rendition and torture of a Libyan critic of Muammar Gaddafi. Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary at the time and is expected to be interviewed by detectives, denies any complicity in rendition – as have his successors at the Foreign Office. Whitehall officials have made clear that the intelligence services believe their operations "were in line with ministerially authorised government policy".
The CIA's court victory over British MPs came after the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition – which comprises about 50 backbench MPs and peers – submitted a slew of information requests to US intelligence agencies as part of its investigations into the extent of British complicity in rendition and torture. The US agencies were trying to avoid official embarrassment on both sides of the Atlantic by using a narrow legal exemption to prevent the disclosure of critical papers, said Tony Lloyd, a Labour MP and the vice-chairman of the group. He called the judgment "disappointing".
The Americans' success in resisting the MPs' inquiries will fuel the controversy over the cover-up of the role said to have been played by British intelligence operatives in spiriting away fugitives and suspects with ministerial approval to secret jails and authoritarian regimes, in particular to Muammar Gaddafi's Libya.
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