Tony Blair knew in detail about the CIA’s secret kidnap and interrogation programme after the September 11 attacks and was kept informed “every step of the way” by MI6, a security source has told The Telegraph.Mr Blair, the then prime minister, and Jack Straw, his foreign secretary, were fully briefed on CIA activities and were shown now infamous Bush administration legal opinions that declared “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding and stress positions to be legal, the source said.
“The politicians took a very active interest indeed. They wanted to know everything. The Americans passed over the legal opinions saying that this was now ‘legal’, and our politicians were aware of what was going on at the highest possible level.
“The politicians knew in detail about everything – the torture and the rendition. They could have said [to M16] ‘stop it, do not get involved’, but at no time did they,” said the source, who has direct and detailed knowledge of the transatlantic relations during that period.
The claims come as Scotland Yard continues to investigate whether MI6 officers should face criminal charges for alleged complicity in the rendition of suspected terrorists, including two Libyan Islamists who were sent back in 2004 to Tripoli, where they were tortured.
The case was opened in January 2012 after documents recovered during the Libyan revolution appeared to show that Sir Mark Allen, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, and other agents had been complicit in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who was captured by the CIA with his pregnant wife and sent back to Libya.
Among the documents was a memo apparently signed by Sir Mark congratulating the then Libyan intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, on the “safe arrival” of Mr Belhadj.
The Telegraph understands that MI6 has been forced to hand over top secret documents from that period to police and that senior officers who served at the time have been interviewed as part of the investigation. It is not known whether Mr Straw, who intelligence sources have indicated was fully briefed on the rendition, has also been interviewed by police.
The source’s claims echo those made publicly by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 from 1999 to 2004, who said in a speech in 2012 that MI6’s cooperation with the CIA’s rendition programme was a “political” decision.
“Tony Blair absolutely knew, Dearlove was briefing him all the time. He was meticulous about keeping the politicians informed. Whether there was anything in writing, well that is a different matter,” added the source, who said it was laughable to suggest that the approval for British security services to cooperate with the CIA programme had been authorised by Mr Straw alone.
“The understanding at SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] was it was acting in the ‘national interest’ and with clear political approval.
“SIS is not a rogue organisation. It would never do this kind of thing alone and without explicit authorisation; that is just not how it works.”
The British government has never formally admitted its role in rendition or officially apologised to victims, although it has paid out several multi-million pounds in “no fault” settlements to rendition victims and former Guantánamo Bay inmates who sued for damages.
The claims against Mr Blair come as the US Senate voted this week to declassify a summary of a 6,300-page report into the CIA’s rendition programme in a move that legal experts say will put added pressure on the British government to come clean about its role.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat chairman of the committee that conducted the research, said the “shocking” report had “uncovered the facts” behind the secret programme and could be made public within 30 days following a security review by the White House and the CIA.
As well as the continuing criminal investigation, the British government, MI6 and Mr Straw are being sued by Mr Belhadj. In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph this week, Mr Belhadj said he was determined to pursue the British government through the courts for an apology and the truth about what happened to him – and what senior figures such as Mr Blair knew about it.
“When he was sitting in the tent with the dictator Gaddafi, I was facing torture at the hands of my own country’s [intelligence] services,” Mr Belhadj said by phone from Tripoli, referring to Mr Blair’s meeting with the Libyan leader in March 2004.
Mr Blair has never confirmed what he knew about the rendition programme, but has argued that Libya played a vital role in the “war on terror”. Mr Belhadj’s case was thrown out last December by a High Court judge who acknowledged that he had a “well-founded claim”, but declined to hear it, citing British government legal arguments that it would seriously damage US-UK relations.
It was decided that English courts had no jurisdiction over events that may have taken place in other countries.
However, legal experts said that the Obama administration decision to declassify its investigation into the torture programme seriously undermines the British government’s claim that all information relating to the case must still be kept secret or be heard in secret courts that were set up last year to hear such cases.
“The fact that President Obama himself has said that this report should be released only confirms that the UK now has no leg to stand on,” said Amrit Singh, a senior lawyer with the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative.
Mr Belhadj said: “In light of the publication of this report it appears that the British legal argument that my case cannot be discussed for fear of upsetting the Americans is actually just a pretext.
“It’s going to make it clear that the British government’s attempt to cover up the abuse that my wife and I suffered are not to do with national security but are to do with avoiding national embarrassment.”
A spokesman for Mr Blair said on Saturday night that he was travelling in Africa and not available for comment. In 2005, Mr Straw told the House of Commons there was ‘simply no truth’ in claims that the UK was involved in rendition, branding them ‘conspiracy theories’.