LONDON — CIA Director Michael Hayden acknowledged Thursday that two rendition flights carrying terrorism suspects refueled on British territory, despite repeated U.S. assurances that none of the secret flights since the Sept. 11 attacks had used British airspace or soil.
Hayden told agency employees that information previously provided to the British "turned out to be wrong."
The spy agency reviewed rendition records late last year and discovered that in 2002 the CIA had in fact refueled two separate planes, each carrying a terrorism suspect, on Diego Garcia, a British island territory in the Indian Ocean.
"The refueling, conducted more than five years ago, lasted just a short time. But it happened. That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong. An important part of intelligence work, inherently urgent, complex, and uncertain, is to take responsibility for errors and to learn from them," Hayden stated in the message obtained by The Associated Press.
Hayden said neither man was tortured and denied there has ever been a holding facility for CIA prisoners on Diego Garcia. Both men remained on their respective planes during the brief stops, according to a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Hayden delivered the news to the British government last weekend on a previously scheduled trip to London.
Not to happen again
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the rendition flights earlier Thursday. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he "shared the disappointment that everybody has" about the stops and that it was important to ensure they would not happen again.
The State Department's top lawyer, John Bellinger, flew to London overnight to deal with potential diplomatic and political fallout, according to a senior State Department official.
One of the two prisoners is now jailed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and the other was released to his home country, where he has since been freed by that government, the U.S. intelligence official said.
The CIA didn't interrogate or imprison either man, according to the official. In this case, the CIA only moved the two men from one country to another.
The CIA has held and interrogated fewer than 100 prisoners in its detention program, using "enhanced" or harsh interrogation techniques on about a third of them, Hayden has told Congress.
The rendition program secretly transfers alleged terrorists from one country to another without formal extradition proceedings. It can involve moving prisoners to the custody of governments where harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, are known to be used. The U.S. government insists it does not move prisoners to third countries without assurances that torture will not be used.
The British government had previously insisted it had no evidence to support allegations that Britain had been involved in rendition.
Rice: 'We don't send people to be tortured'
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in 2005 that the United States respects the sovereignty of foreign countries when conducting intelligence operations within their borders, suggesting that the CIA conducts rendition flights with the permission of the governments involved.
In a Dec. 6, 2005, interview with Sky News from Berlin, Rice publicly sidestepped a question about whether British airports or airspace were being used in rendition, and whether the British government was aware of it.
"We have obligations under our international conventions and we are respecting the sovereignty of our allies," she said. "We are not using the airspace or the airports of any of our partners for activities that would lead renditions to torture. We don't send people to be tortured."
The United States did not begin seeking permission from governments before using their airspace and facilities for rendition until after the 2002 flights in question, according to a State Department official.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that Rice spoke to Miliband about "the administrative error" on Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, unfortunately, even with the most rigorous searches and, unfortunately, with good technology, sometimes administrative errors occur and this was the case," McCormack said. "We regret that there was an error in initially providing inaccurate information to a good friend and ally."
McCormack said the review last year was "self-generated."
A U.S. intelligence official said the review was prompted by fresh allegations in the press last fall that Diego Garcia was being used as a secret detention site.
"We, in taking a look in particular at the issue of Diego Garcia, asked ourselves a few questions and as a result generated this search," he said.
Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman for President Bush, said the incident was "unfortunate" but will not damage U.S.-British cooperation.
"Mistakes were made in the reporting of the information," he said. "But we will continue to have a good counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and United Kingdom."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.