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Clandestine deals

September 6, 2011

With the Gadhafi regime in tatters and the Libyan leader on the run, secret files in Tripoli have come to light which detail the depth of cooperation between the US and UK with Libya on the rendition of terror suspects.

CIA seal over prison jail bars
The CIA struck rendition deals with Libya as early as 2002Image: Getty Images /G. Gershoff

The United States and Britain face embarrassing questions after reams of confidential documents discovered in Libya's External Security agency headquarters exposed the depth of cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the UK's foreign intelligence service MI6 and fugitive dictator Moammar Gadhafi's secret service.

The documents, uncovered by officials from the Libyan transitional authority and researchers from Human Rights Watch during a sweep of government buildings, show that both the US and British intelligence services developed very close relations with Gadhafi. This cooperation took place even before the former Libyan leader was rehabillitated in the wake of his pledge to help in the war on terror and his renouncing of nuclear-weapons in 2004.

Documents recovered from the offices also show that the CIA was using Libya as a location for its "special renditions," the US policy of sending terror suspects to third countries for interrogation, from as early as 2002. The files show that the CIA flew terror suspects to Libya for questioning by Gadhafi's secret police and even provided the Libyans with the questions that should be asked.

"After 9/11 the CIA seemed to be involved in various North African countries; training forces and supplying small arms in the name of stopping al Qaeda and the spread of terrorism," Patricia DeGennaro, professor of international security at New York University's Department of Politics, told Deutsche Welle.

"It is well known that there were rendition camps in several countries including Morocco. Since Libya is so isolated and got so little international attention, it was easy for the CIA to use this location and be in essence under the radar."

"No one on the international stage ever took Gadhafi seriously so it was unlikely that anyone would question him about rendition facilities," she added.

Cooperation was so deep that the George W. Bush administration considered establishing "a permanent presence" in Libya, possibly a CIA-run secret prison or a covert CIA field office, where terror suspects could be incarcerated and interrogated. Documents show that this "presence" was set up in 2004 after Gadhafi had come in from the diplomatic cold.

CIA renditions

A Boeing 737 with registration number N313P is seen taking off from Spain's San Joan Palma de Mallorca airport March 12, 2004. This airplane is mentioned, with registration number N313P, in a report by police investigating the case, for allegedly being used by the CIA to transport Islamic terror suspects.
The CIA flew terror suspects into Libya from secret prisonsImage: AP

One letter sent from the CIA to Libyan intelligence, dated April 15, 2004, cited "recently developed agreements" between the US and Libya and asked the Libyans to "agree to take our requirements for debriefings" into consideration in regard to an unnamed terror suspect. The letter also asks that the Libyans to "guarantee that [the suspect's] human rights will be protected" while in custody.

The documents indicate that eight prisoners in total were captured and put on CIA "rendition" flights back to Libya between 2004 and 2007, although US cooperation with Libya continued until at least 2009 - according to embassy cables released by WikiLeaks - with senior senators such as John McCain and Joe Liebermann meeting with Gadhafi to assure the dictator that "the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security."

"The US stepped back from its relationship with Gadhafi when President Obama took office," said DeGennaro. "At that time Obama was against this idea of rendition and intended to close Guantanamo and end the reputation for torture that the US had gained through these clandestine places of illegal incarceration."

Before that change in administration, however, the CIA had consolidated its presence and expanded its activities in Libya. In another of the Libyan documents from 2004, the CIA asks Libyan intelligence to let its agents interview several Iraqi scientists who were living in Libya in a bid to determine the fate of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Another document details growing US concern over a suspected "operational" terror cell in Libya, suspected of being in contact with al Qaeda operatives in Iraq.

The main contact between the CIA and Libya throughout this period of intense cooperation appears to be Moussa Koussa, Libya's then-intelligence chief and the man suspected on coordinating Libya-backed terror activities in the 1980s.

Koussa, who defected from Gadhafi's government in March, is shown in the documents as being on first name terms with Stephen Kappes, second-in command at the CIA's clandestine service and a key negotiator in the 2004 nuclear deal with Libya. He is also shown to have cultivated significant ties with some British intelligence officials.

MI5 deal

A scene from the Amnesty International film on waterboarding
Britain received info from Libya, a country known for tortureImage: picture alliance / dpa

A number of documents show that the British domestic security service MI5 traded information on British-based anti-Gadhafi Libyans in exchange for updates on the disclosures made by suspected terrorists being questioned in Libya under "extraordinary rendition."

The British were acutely aware of Libya's reputation for torturing prisoners and appear to have been unconcerned by the practices employed to extract the information they received, suggesting the UK's complicity in and knowledge of torture.

MI6, the foreign intelligence service, is also revealed to have worked with the CIA on renditions of terror suspects to Libya, including the Libyan rebel's security commander in Tripoli, Abdul Hakim Belhaj. Belhaj, who is considering suing the US and UK governments over his allegedly brutal treatment, was a leading dissident member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization listed as a terror group by the US because of its suspected links to al Qaeda.

One document records an exchange between a senior MI6 officer and a Libyan counterpart in which the MI6 operative boasts about how British spies provided Belhaj's French and Moroccan aliases and his location to US and Libyan intelligence, eventually leading to his capture in Bangkok on March 6, 2004.

Belhaj alleges that the CIA tortured him and injected him with truth serum before flying him back to Tripoli for interrogation where he claims he was first interrogated by MI6 officers and then transferred into Libyan custody.

"MI6 would have been seeking to gain access to detainees associated with the jihadi movement in Libya, in order to obtain information about, firstly, known and suspected Libyan terrorists and, secondly, known and suspected terrorists of other nationalities who the Libyan jihadists may have come into contact with in Sudan, Algeria and Afghanistan," Alia Brahimi, a Middle East expert and author, told Deutsche Welle.

In another damaging revelation for the British, one document reveals that Saadi and Khamis Gadhafi, two of the dictator's sons, were invited to visit the headquarters of the Special Air Service (SAS), Britain's top Special Forces regiment, and its navy counterpart, the Special Boat Service (SBS) in July 2006, although the visit never went ahead.

Both Gadhafi sons would have met with high-ranking British military officials during the visit and were scheduled to hold talks with representatives of Britain's largest arms manufacturers while in the UK.

UK torture inquiry

U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron
Not on my watch: Cameron and Obama will still face questionsImage: AP

The revealing documents have come to light at a time when the British security services are under increased scrutiny ahead of an inquiry into the UK's role in rendition and the security services' knowledge of the torture and mistreatment of terrorist suspects.

The Gibson Inquiry has announced that it will "be considering allegations of UK involvement in rendition to Libya as part of our work" and has been backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron who welcomed a wider investigation into the "significant" accusations that that MI6 and MI5 became "too close" to Libya.

"What these intelligent organizations did was illegal and inhumane," said DeGennaro. "David Cameron is right to start an investigation and the Obama Administration and Congress should not hesitate to follow suit."

"Unfortunately that would probably implicate members of Congress and the former administration. Powerful senators like John McCain, who probably knew very well what was happening, won't ever allow this."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge