(MintPress)- As new developments emerged last week about the establishment of US black sites in Poland, so too emerged the desire of U.S. agencies to keep its extraordinary rendition program a secret. A U.S. District Court Judge in Washington recently ruled that exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow the Central Intelligence Agency […]
(MintPress)- As new developments emerged last week about the establishment of US black sites in Poland, so too emerged the desire of U.S. agencies to keep its extraordinary rendition program a secret. A U.S. District Court Judge in Washington recently ruled that exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and various U.S. agencies to keep information about its extraordinary rendition program, which moves suspects to interrogation centers in third-party countries where they are outside the law, hidden from members of UK Parliament.
Judge Ricardo Urbina denied the motion filed by British MP Andrew Tyrie and the All Party Parliamentary Group of Extraordinary Rendition (APPG) requesting information on 43 topics relating to US-UK involvement in extraordinary rendition, secret detention, and coercive interrogation of suspected terrorists based on a clause in the FOIA that exempts members of the intelligence community from disclosing information to foreign government entities.
The APPG, a group of 50 Members of Parliament established to investigate UK involvement in the U.S. rendition program, claims that the UK’s participation in the U.S. rendition program allowed the CIA to extrajudicially apprehend foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities and transfer them to secret detention facilities where they were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques and possibly torture.
Exemptions to Freedom of Information
The Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966 to allow any person the right to access federal agency records. However, the defendants in the case, including the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and various U.S. intelligence agencies, argued that a 2002 amendment exempts intelligence agencies from providing information to the plaintiffs.
5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(E) states that an agency in the intelligence community is not required to make records available to “any government entity, other than a State, territory, commonwealth, or district of the United States, or any subdivision thereof; or a representative of a government entity.”
The code was enacted in a 2002 FOIA amendment in response to concerns that was previously structured, “foreign persons and governments (including those that may support or participate in terrorist activities) have generated requests that require a significant commitment of Intelligence Community resources to process.”
The plaintiffs argue that under English law, the term “government” only refers to the executive branch, and therefore do not believe the exemption applies. In the court’s opinion, Judge Urbina writes, “The court freely admits that the word ‘government’ may portend a more nuanced meaning within the milieu of the English system of governance.” However, Urbina rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, saying, “It would be decidedly peculiar to assume that Congress intended FOIA’s terms to shift with the idiosyncratic governmental configurations of every sovereign state.”
The court’s decision sets a precedent for future requests from foreign parties as it is the first known case pertaining to the boundaries of the FOIA’s foreign government exception. Tony Lloyd, a Labour MP for Manchester Central, called the ruling “an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information,” and told the Guardian that the US was looking for an excuse to withhold information.
Covering Up Secrets of Diego Garcia
The information that the APPG believes the U.S. is withholding includes details pertaining to alleged US black sites located in the British Indian Ocean Territory. In addition to locations in Poland and Romania, U.S. intelligence agencies are suspected to have operated secret prisons for suspected terrorists on Diego Garcia, a British-controlled atoll with a large U.S. military presence located off the East African coast.
In 2004, then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed to parliament that there was a prison on Diego Garcia. Additionally, human rights groups believe that ships operating offshore have been used as floating black sites to hold and interrogate detainees.
Although the U.S. and UK continue to deny allegations that Diego Garcia was used for any extraordinary rendition program, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband has admitted that the atoll has been used at least twice to refuel rendition planes.
One of the detainees whose rendition flight is believed to have stopped in Diego Garcia is suing the UK commission in charge of the atoll for its complicity in the CIA’s illegal program. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former terror suspect and current senior military commander in the new Libya, believes he was rendered from Bangkok to Libya by the CIA, where he spent more than four years in a Libyan prison while being interrogated by both British and U.S. agents.
Belhaj and his legal staff filed the lawsuit last week, citing papers found at the headquarters of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief, which allegedly provide a schedule for Belhaj’s rendition including a layover on Diego Garcia. Belhajf claims that British authorities gave permission for the stopover.
In 2008, TIME magazine reported that several credible sources agreed that Diego Garcia was used by CIA counterterrorism officials to detain and interrogate at least one high-value prisoner from 2002-2003.
A prisoner released from Guantanamo Bay told Reprieve, a UK human rights group, about the experience his fellow inmates had aboard a U.S. ship near Diego Garcia. “There were about 50 other people on the ship,” the detainee reported, adding that the prisoners “were beaten even more severely than in Guantanamo.”
Despite mounting reports and allegations over the years, the UK and U.S. governments have not released any information to confirm the alleged rendition program in Diego Garcia, thus prompting the APPG to file its FOIA. APPG chairman Andrew Tyrie MP said back in 2008 of a separate FOIA filed in the UK, that “It is the policy of extraordinary rendition which damages the public interest, not allowing the truth to be told about it.” Tyrie vowed to “continue to do what I can to uncover the truth about rendition and Diego Garcia.”
Tyrie still has a long way to go to uncover the truth about Diego Garcia, which remains a secret following the U.S. District Court’s decision last week.