BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. spy planes flew reconnaissance flights over Lebanon from a British air base in Cyprus, leaked U.S. documents show, in a counter-terrorist surveillance operation requested by Lebanese officials.
The documents, which did not specify what the 2008 flights were monitoring, revealed Britain feared that if the imagery from the flights was used by the Lebanese army to capture and mistreat suspects, Britain could be seen as complicit.
British officials were also concerned that the Lebanese request for the intelligence flights, known as “Cedar Sweep,” had come solely from Lebanon’s Defense Ministry without endorsement from the government as a whole.
Britain’s concern had been heightened by revelations in February 2008 that the United States used its military base on the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia to transfer captives, without British permission.
“(Britain) expects the United States to monitor use of the CEDAR SWEEP intel and ensure the LAF (Lebanese army) lives up to its commitment to maintain high human rights standards,” a U.S. diplomat reported back to Washington in May 2008, according to one cable released by the WikiLeaks website.
The cables also showed that American U2 flights from Britain’s Akrotiri base in Cyprus gathered intelligence over Turkey and northern Iraq.
“In both cases, intelligence product is intended to be passed to third party governments, and it is important for us to be satisfied that (Britain) is not indirectly aiding the commission of unlawful acts by those governments,” one cable quoted Britain’s Ministry of Defense as saying.
The release of the cables has fueled speculation that the flights over Lebanon were targeting Hezbollah militants.
The powerful Shi‘ite group, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, is now part of Lebanon’s fragile unity government. But in May 2008 it seized parts of Beirut after the Sunni-led government shut down its private telecommunications network and dismissed a Hezbollah official in charge of Beirut airport.
However another cable, obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar from WikiLeaks, said the United States shared material with Defense Minister Elias Murr aimed at supporting “counter-terrorism” operations in Palestinian refugee camps.
“The recent imagery that is being provided to the LAF gives them a capability they did not have; in fact, ‘We used to be blind,’ said Murr,” the April 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Beirut said.
“...As for any future counter-terrorism action in the camps, Murr affirmed that the imagery would only be used for lawful purposes..”
A month earlier, Murr had expressed fears of an imminent war between Hezbollah and Israel, and revealed contingency measures which he hoped would allow Lebanon’s army to stay out of the fight, according to another leaked cable.
“For Murr, the LAF’s strategic objective was to survive a three-week war ‘completely intact’ and able to take over once Hizballah’s militia has been destroyed. ‘I do not want thousands of our soldiers to die for no reason’,” the cable quoted Murr as telling an embassy official.
Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon