The UK Foreign Office (FCO) on Wednesday claimed that documents on the government's involvement in CIA renditions were "destroyed accidentally," the Guardian reports.
Several key documents detailing the UK government's role in the controversial program of rendition — which involves sending terror suspects to countries without legal protection in order to imprison and interrogate them without repercussion — were found to be "incomplete due to water damage," according to FCO minister Mark Simmons.
While Simmons did not elaborate on how the documents came to be destroyed, the timing of the announcement has raised accusations of a cover-up by human rights groups. An upcoming U.S. Senate report is likely to identify Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean, as a location of a secret CIA prison built with "full cooperation" of the UK government.
The UK's knowledge and approval of the island being used for the rendition program would mean that the government is in violation of several international and domestic laws, such as those against torture, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention, as well as the right to a fair trial. In some cases, complicity in rendition can even constitute a war crime.
"It's looking worse and worse for the UK government on Diego Garcia," said Cori Crider, director at UK-based human rights organization Reprieve. "First we learn the Senate's upcoming torture report says detainees were held on the island, and now – conveniently – a pile of key documents turn up missing with 'water damage'? The government might as well have said the dog ate their homework. This smacks of a cover-up. They now need to come clean about how, when, and where this evidence was lost."
In March, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the CIA was particularly sensitive about information exposing "the names of specific countries in which the [agency] operated detention sites." Those names are not likely to be included in the Senate report.
The extent to which the UK government is involved in the program — beyond its approval of the prison — is unclear. Although the island is British territory, it has been used by the U.S. as a military base since the 1960s. However, the island's residents at the time the base was created were forcibly removed by the Labour party, indicating that the UK government has at least been aware of, if not directly involved with, the U.S. military's operations on the island since the beginning. And evidence gathered by The Rendition Project recently showed that more than 1,600 flights in and out of the UK were operating for the CIA's program.
This is not the first time that the UK government has lied or given incomplete information to the public about Diego Garcia. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair had explicitly stated that the island had not been used for rendition flights, when in fact the government had been aware of at least two separate occasions. That revelation led to then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband issuing a public apology to MPs.
In its 2008 human rights report (PDF), the Foreign Affairs Select Committee stated that the UK government has "a moral and legal obligation to ensure that flights that enter the UK airspace or land at UK airports are not part of the rendition circuit." The UK government should "work proactively to persuade other states to renounce the use of torture," the report stated, calling the dishonest claims about the two individuals rendered through Diego Garcia "deplorable."
As the Guardian points out, multiple reports from various sources have shown that the CIA was actively holding and interrogating suspects in its secret prison on Diego Garcia from 2002 to 2005, although the full timeline has not been verified. There are no reports of the program ever ceasing operations on the island.