US, Britain argued over spy flights: WikiLeaks

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US and British officials clashed over the use of a Cyprus air base for US spying missions in 2008, with London worried about complicity in potential rights abuses, leaked cables showed Thursday.

The British were particularly concerned about U2 spy plane missions to track militants in Lebanon, Turkey and northern Iraq that provided intelligence to Lebanese and Turkish authorities.

The newly-disclosed spat between the two close allies is the latest in a series of revelations stemming from the release of a trove of secret US embassy cables by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.

The cables describe how British officials demanded to be kept better informed about covert missions out of Akrotiri air base and whether other governments were involved, so they could decide if the operations might carry legal or other risks, according to the cables.

The acrimonious discussions, during former president George W. Bush's administration, led a US diplomat to write that an element of "distrust" had emerged in relations between the traditional allies, according to the 2008 documents, first reported in The Guardian newspaper.

Under political pressure at home over Britain's role in secret CIA flights to transfer terror suspects, British officials ordered the Americans to provide in writing more details about planned spying flights out of the base to ensure London was not a party to "unlawful" operations, the cables said.

A British letter to Washington on April 18, 2008, said "recent U2 flights over Turkey/Northern Iraq, and the Lebanon, have highlighted important legal and political issues which require much more careful consideration by HMG (her majesty's government)."

Britain believed "it is important for us to be satisfied that HMG is not indirectly aiding the commission of unlawful acts by those governments on the basis of the information gathered through the assistance we provide to the US," said the letter, quoted in the cable.

The British were also concerned about "sensitivities" with the government in Cyprus, to avoid operations that might anger the local government and lead to losing access to the air base, the letter said.

London's requests angered the Americans, who saw the requirements as hampering counter-terrorism efforts.

"Embassy London is concerned by HMG's piling on of concerns and conditions, which portend a burdensome process for getting the rest of our intel flights approved," a cable said.

While the United States shared Britain's human rights concerns, "we cannot take a risk-avoidance approach to CT (counter-terrorism) in which the fear of potentially violating human rights allows terrorism to proliferate in Lebanon," the US embassy in London wrote.

London's concerns were due to an earlier revelation that the US government had transferred captured terror suspects through the British territory of Diego Garcia "without UK permission" and London's "need to ensure it is not similarly blindsided in the future," the US embassy wrote.

The embassy urged a high-level US diplomat to intervene after a British official said his government expected Washington to "ensure" any detainees captured in Lebanon with the help of spy flights would be "treated lawfully" by Lebanese authorities, the cables said.

A senior administration official then met with the Foreign Office's head of defense and intelligence, who appeared to strike a more conciliatory tone.

The British official said the discussions over spy flights were "unnecessarily confrontational" and backed away from demands over detainees captured as a result of the Lebanon spy flights, the embassy wrote.

But the official said Washington had gotten "sloppy" in its use of the Cyprus base, and that the Americans need to fully inform Britain about operations involving third countries, the cable said.

Despite US objections, the official insisted that requests for future flights be made through the US embassy in London and between both governments instead of only going through military channels, it said.

The official said the then British foreign secretary David Miliband believed that "policymakers needed to get control of the military."

© 2010 AFP

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