Akrotiri Spy Planes Raised Tensions with Cyprus
British officials and officials at the US Embassy in London had bitter rows over secret US spy flights from Akrotiri airbase over Lebanon, Turkey and northern Iraq, according to leaked US cables on whistleblower website Wikileaks.
The operations, codenamed Cedar Sweep and Highland Warrior, also caused tensions between the UK and Cyprus, as was reported in UK daily The Guardian.
"Highland Warrior had raised tensions with the Cypriots, jeopardising the UK's hold on Akrotiri," according to one cable's text.
Essentially, UK ministers demanded to know exactly what the spy planes were up to and the Ministry of Defence insisted on stricter conditions on conducting the missions. But US officials dismissed their concerns that the UK could become implicated in intelligence-gathering that led to torture.
"While we share HMG (her majesty's government) concerns that human rights not be sacrificed for the sake of CT, 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," goes the text of one of the cables sent to the US State Department from the London embassy.
The additional conditions for approval of spy missions over Lebanon were described by US officials as 'burdensome' and 'unrealistic' and the author recommends that the US Embassy in Beirut to urge the Siniora government to 'engage the British directly'.
Cedar Sweep intelligence that was gathered by US spy missions over Lebanon was shared with the Lebanese Ministry of Defence (MOD). John Hillman of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Whitehall Liaison Department was quoted in the cable as saying that "despite the Lebanese MOD's assurances that it would not use the shared intel unlawfully, Human Rights Watch and even the State Department's own Human Rights Report had documented cases of torture and arbitrary arrest by the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces)."
A letter sent to the State Department from the UK Ministry of Defence 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. In both cases, intelligence product is intended to be passed to third party governments, and it is important for us to be satisfied that HMG is not indirectly aiding the commission of unlawful acts by those governments."
In 2008, a cable from the US London embassy said: "U.S.-UK talks on clearances for DOD intel flights had become unnecessarily confrontational," FCO Director General for Defence and Intelligence Mariot Leslie told Acting U/S John Rood May 16.
The text goes on to say that "after reiterating the political sensitivities surrounding the Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) on Cyprus and the public and parliamentary pressure on HMG (Her Majesty's Government) to maintain sovereign control of its territories...Leslie noted the USG use of Akrotiri had gotten sloppy."
"She reiterated the value HMG placed on U.S.-UK cooperation, but noted HMG was now asking the USG (US Government) to comply with the same clearance procedures HMG itself used for intel flights. She made no attempt to hide her annoyance that the FCO working level had ratcheted up conditions...the Cypriots are hypersensitive about the British presence there and, she said, could turn off the utilities at any time. That, combined with the toxic mix of the rendition flights through Diego Garcia, has resulted in tremendous parliamentary, public, and media pressure on HMG to maintain sovereign control of its territories, especially Akrotiri," said the cable.
According to the overall gist of the cables - which confirm for the first time that US spy planes use Akrotiri Airbase - secret spy flights were conducted from the base without proper ministerial permissions. In 2001, according to a Cyprus Mail article, a Base's spokesman denied a 'Flight International' magazine report that Royal Air Force spy planes based in Akrotiri and equipped with US satellite surveillance equipment are being used for intelligence missions to Iraq.
A Bases spokesman today refused to comment on the Guardian's report.
Wikileaks has released 667 of 251,287 secret and confidential cables from US embassies around the world. Its founder, Julian Assange, has been placed on Interpol's red alert list as he is wanted for questioning in Sweden on molestation allegations, which he has denied. Wikileaks was forced to change website address after their hosting service shut down Wikileaks.org. Their new address is www.wikileaks.ch.
The US diplomatic community are in frantic damage-control mode as the leaked cables reveal frank observations from US officials which appear quite different to normal public-consumption press releases and photo opportunities. So far, no one in the US administration has denied the cables' authenticity.
The London embassy cables can be read here