Scale of UK lobbying over Senate torture report revealed by Ambassador’s meetings

August 17, 2014

Newly-released information reveals that the British ambassador has met at least 21 times with members of the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) ahead of the expected publication of its report on CIA torture and rendition – leading to increased concerns that the UK may be seeking to “censor” the report.

Records obtained under Freedom of Information by legal charity Reprieve show that the British Ambassador to the US has met on numerous occasions with Republicans and Democrats on the SSCI during the course of its work investigating the CIA programme – including two notable meetings with Committee Chair Senator Feinstein shortly after the decision was made to publish the report.

A number of leaks to the media have already suggested that the report will contain new information regarding the UK’s role in supporting the CIA programme – including the use of the British territory of Diego Garcia by ‘rendition’ flights carrying detainees.  The large number of recorded meetings between the Ambassador and members of the SSCI – which the FCO has admitted will not include the total number of less formal meetings – has therefore raised concerns that the UK is seeking to have such information kept out of the public domain.

In its response to a FOI request made by Reprieve for a list of dates on which UK officials had met with the SSCI or its members, the FCO said that:   “Current and former Ambassadors to Washington have met individual members of the Committee on a number of separate occasions. Our records, although not exhaustive, show that the current Ambassador met Senator Feinstein on 29 April 2014 and 2 May 2014, Senator Heinrich on 16 July 2014, Senator Rubio on 26 March 2014, 1 February 2013 and 10 April 2013, Senator Chambliss on 20 November 2012, Senator Mark Warner on 11 January 2013, Senator Collins on 16 July 2012 and 25 July 2012, and Senator Rockefeller on 28 June 2012.

“The former Ambassador met Senator Feinstein on 8 March 2010, 8 May 2010, 19 June 2010 and 26 September 2009, Senator Rockefeller on 6 July 2009, Senator Wyden on 28 February 2011, Senator Rubio on 15 March 2011, Senator Mark Warner on 30 January 2009 and 18 February 2009, Senator Risch on 22 April 2009, and Senator Collins on 19 April 2010. However, this list is not exhaustive and does not show where there have been brush-by meetings or when they have attended the same events (for example, dinners and receptions).”

Former Foreign Secretary William Hague has previously admitted that the British Government has engaged with the US over the issue of “UK material” in the SSCI’s torture reported, writing in a letter to Reprieve that:   “We have made representations to seek assurance that ordinary procedures for clearance of UK material will be followed in the event that UK material provide [sic] to the Senate Committee were to be disclosed.”

Reprieve’s Executive Director, Clare Algar said: “This is yet more evidence of the desperate attempts being made by the UK to censor the Senate’s report on CIA torture. We already know that our Government was up to its neck in the CIA’s programme of rendition and torture – making it highly likely that the Senate’s report will contain information which is deeply embarrassing for them.  But simple embarrassment is not a justification for supressing the truth. Ministers must change course and instead support the publication of this crucial report in the most open and transparent form.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

1. For further information and copies of the original FoI response from the FCO, please contact Donald Campbell at Reprieve: +44 (0) 7791 755 415 / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk

2. William Hague’s letter to Reprieve, and media reports concerning the contents of the Senate report relating to the UK, can be found here: www.reprieve.org.uk/media/downloads/2014_07_14_Hague_to_Reprieve_re_Senate_torture_Report.pdf

3. There follows a timeline providing context to the Ambassadors’ meetings with the SSCI, which can be seen to cluster around significant points in the process of the SSCI’s production of its report – strengthening concerns that Britain has been seeking to censor parts of the report concerning the role it played in support of the CIA’s programme:

2009: HM Ambassador to the US meets SSCI members Sen. Rockefeller (6 July), Sen. Feinstein (26 September), Sen. Warner (30 January, 18 February) and Sen. Risch (22 April).

Context and analysis: In March 2009, the SSCI voted by 14-1 to investigate the CIA’s rendition programme. This followed on from a preliminary report made by Committee staffers who had been sent by Sen. Rockefeller – chair of the SSCI until January 2009 – to review CIA cables concerning the rendition and torture programme.   Sen. Rockefeller was succeeded as SSCI Chair by Sen. Feinstein on 6 January 2009.   June 2009 saw the SSCI and CIA hammering out arrangements over which documents the Committee would review and the necessary logistics. It is likely that meetings between HMA and Sens. Rockefeller and Feinstein in July and September (respectively) would have touched on the documents to be reviewed.

2010: HM Ambassador to the US meets SSCI Chair Sen. Feinstein (8 March, 8 May, 19 June) and SSCI member Sen. Collins (19 April).   2011: HMA meets SSCI members Sen. Wyden (28 February) and Sen. Rubio (15 March).   2012: HMA meets SSCI members Sen. Rockefeller (28 June), Sen. Collins (16 July, 25 July) and Sen. Chambliss (20 November).

Context and analysis: The second half of 2009 to December 2012 saw the review taking place and report being written, culminating in a vote to approve the draft report on 13 December 2012.  During this period, HMA can be seen meeting both majority and minority (i.e. Democratic and Republican) sides of the Committee.   The meeting with the Republican Vice-Chair of the Committee, Sen. Chambliss on 20 November, 2012, was very shortly before the SSCI voted to approve the Draft Report by nine votes to six, splitting along party lines. It seems impossible to believe that the upcoming vote wouldn’t have been discussed.

2013: HMA meets SSCI member Sen. Rubio (1 February, 10 April).   Context and analysis: Meetings with Republican committee member Sen. Rubio in this period seem likely to have been about the prospect of the report’s release, which by this stage had been discussed publicly by SSCI Chair Sen. Feinstein.

June 2013 saw the CIA provide its opinion on the report to the SSCI, which coloured which amendments were made to the report over the next few months.

2014: HMA meets with SSCI Chair Sen. Feinstein (29 April, 2 May), and SSCI members Sen. Rubio (26 March) and Sen. Heinrich (16 July).   Context and analysis: The SSCI’s vote to declassify the summary and conclusions of its report on CIA torture took place on 3 April, 2014, succeeding by 11 votes to 3.  In this context, this cluster of HMA’s meetings with committee members seems telling.  He met with Sen. Rubio – one of the three members who voted against declassification – on 26 March, just days ahead of the vote.  This was followed by two meetings in quick succession with the Committee’s chair, Sen. Feinstein, in the month following the vote.    Significantly, mid-April saw leaks of the report’s contents concerning the involvement of the British territory of Diego Garcia in the CIA’s rendition programme:

      Al Jazeera America

reported

      on 9 April that “The Senate report…says that the CIA detained some high-value suspects on Diego Garcia, an Indian Ocean island controlled by the United Kingdom and leased to the United States.”  The Daily Telegraph

ran a story under the headline

      “British gave ‘full co-operation’ for CIA black jail on Diego Garcia, report claims,” on 10 April. The Observer

reported

    on 13 April that “The government is under mounting pressure to “come clean” about the role of an overseas UK territory leased to the US and allegedly used as a secret “black site” detention centre.”

It therefore seems likely that the meetings between HMA and Committee Chair Sen. Feinstein (29 April, 2 May) and Committee member Sen. Heinrich – which followed closely on both the vote to declassify and leaks suggesting the report would contain evidence of UK involvement in the CIA rendition programme – were in pursuit of securing certain redactions from the report.   Notably, June 2014 saw flight and immigration records on Diego Garcia damaged or destroyed – according to British ministers, by “extremely heavy weather,” although there is as yet no evidence that June was an unusually wet month on the island.  Reports of the damaged documents emerged in July, in a series of statements given by ministers in response to questions in the House of Commons which saw the Government change its position on a number of occasions.   On 14 July 2014 Reprieve received a letter from the British Foreign Secretary confirming that the UK has “made representations to seek assurance[s]” regarding the “clearance of UK material […] provide[d] to the Senate Committee.”