The government received assurances directly from US president George W Bush and his national security adviser Condoleeza Rice that Shannon Airport was not used as a refuelling stop on so-called CIA rendition missions, a former minister has said.
Another minister from that time said, however, that it would have been impossible for the government to ensure that no US planes landing in Shannon were later used to transport prisoners around torture centres.
Dermot Ahern, who was minister for foreign affairs from 2004 to 2008, a period covering the US torture of al-Qaeda suspects, said that he raised the issue of renditions directly with Ms Rice at a meeting and that taoiseach Bertie Ahern brought up the issue with Mr Bush at the White House during their St Patrick's Day meetings.
Dermot Ahern told
The Irish Times
this week that
was one of the first countries to raise concerns with the Americans about whether Shannon was being used as a refuelling stopover by CIA-leased aircraft to transfer al-Qaeda suspects and other detainees around secret prisons in eastern
in America’s so-called “war on terror”.
“There was always the suggestion that some planes which had been used for extraordinary rendition had flown on some occasions through Shannon but there was no proof,” Mr Ahern added.
He said that there was never any suggestion that there were people being “rendered” on the planes when they went through Shannon.
“There was an acknowledgement that there weren’t people [detainees] on the planes, whatever about the planes maybe flying into Shannon and flying onwards and then flying back to America through another route, perhaps with somebody on them.”
A report published earlier this month by the Senate intelligence committee found that the CIA's interrogations programme was "far more brutal" than previously revealed and that the techniques used – including slamming detainees into walls, waterboarding them to the point of "near drownings" and keeping them in stressed positions and awake for up to a week – amounted to "torture".
The report found that the CIA lied to the White House, the US Congress and the American public about the nature of the programme and the efficacy of the techniques used in producing vital intelligence.
There is no reference in the report to Shannon, and the CIA's secret prisons where detainees were interrogated in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania are identified only by codenames.
Research by The Renditions Project, led by two UK-based academic researchers, and Reprieve, a legal charity, found that more than two dozen US-leased planes between 2002 and 2006 may have passed through Shannon either on the way to or on the way back from transporting detainees around the so-called CIA “black site” prisons.
A founder of The Rendition Project, Dr
, a lecturer in international relations at Kingston University in London, said he could not see the moral justification of the government allowing the use of Shannon and other Irish airports on renditions, saying it was akin to “helping a bank robber on the way to a bank robbery”.
Mr Ahern said that once the government received assurances from the US government – “a sovereign government with which Ireland had friendly relations” – that Shannon was not being used by planes as a stopover for renditions, they were not going to check aircraft.
“We weren’t going to second-guess them by raiding planes that were flying in and out once we got those assurances,” he said, though he added that the Garda could search planes if they suspected a crime.
An American pilot told The Irish Times earlier this month that his plane was never checked at Shannon on several refuelling stops while transporting armed, plain-clothed US military personnel on leased commercial aircraft as part of government missions to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other locations in Asia during the 2002-2007 interrogations programme.
Michael McDowell, who was minister for justice between 2002 and 2007, said that it would have been “unverifiable” for the government to ensure that US government planes stopping in Shannon were not later be used in CIA rendition missions.
"The Americans would not say to us that this plane is now going to fly on from Shannon to pick up somebody in Afghanistan and bring them to be tortured in Romania," he told The Irish Times.
Asymmetry of power
“They wouldn’t tell us that in the first place. The only way around that would be to ban all American flights to Shannon because we couldn’t check that they were telling us the truth or not.”
Mr McDowell said that from a practical point of view that this was not possible and that it was also impossible to find out the intentions of every US government plane coming into Irish airspace that was flying on somewhere else afterwards.
“You couldn’t do it,” he said. “Maybe if you were as powerful as the Americans, you could do it. There is an asymmetry of power there.”
The Bush White House gave “a solemn and absolute assurance” that Shannon was not being used in renditions missions, he said.
“That was as far as the government at the time thought they could force the matter,” he said.
After the Irish government sought assurances directly with the Americans, the Bush White House told the European Union, without explaining why, that it would not be providing similar assurances to other countries on a country-by-country basis.
The 525-page Senate report into the rendition, detention and interrogation programme, an executive summary of a much bigger study running to more than 6,700 pages, said that detainees transported by the CIA around interrogation centres at “black sites” were “typically hooded with their hands and feet shackled”.
“The detainees wore large headsets to eliminate their ability to hear, and these headsets were typically affixed to a detainee’s head with duct tape that ran the circumference of the detainee’s head,” the report said.
“CIA detainees were placed in diapers and not permitted to use the lavatory on the aircraft. Depending on the aircraft, detainees were either strapped into seats during the flights, or laid down and strapped to the floor of the plane horizontally like cargo.”
The report refers to a 2005 television news report on Dateline NBC, based on interviews with senior CIA officers including the agency's director Porter Gross, in which al-Qaeda leaders were described as being "bundled onto a CIA Gulfstream V or Boeing 737 jet headed for long hours of interrogation".
According to the Senate committee, the news report indicated that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the US, and three other detainees were “picked up and bundled off to interrogation centres”.
Mr McDowell said that he was the only member of the Irish government at the time who spoke out about how America's detention of people at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, circumvented legal procedures and human rights.
“When George Bush was coming to Ireland, I said it was disgraceful what was going on there and I got a cold wind from DFA [the Department of Foreign Affairs] for even saying so,” he said.
“Nonetheless, I have always been utterly hostile to a ‘war against terror’ rhetoric and the torture and abuse of people and all the rest of it.”