The Bush administration was bracing Thursday for a diplomatic backlash after conceding that the United States used British territory in the transport of two terrorism suspects on "extraordinary rendition" flights and gave false assurances to Britain that it never happened.
The CIA admitted that the information given to America's strongest ally "turned out to be wrong" and blamed a "flawed records search" for the misinformation.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament Thursday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him the suspects had been on flights to Guantanamo Bay and Morocco in 2002 that stopped on Diego Garcia, at a U.S. base on British soil.
U.S. officials have sought to quell the fallout by apologizing to Britain for the erroneous assurances. The admission, however, may reopen a bitter debate between the United States and its allies over how the fight against terrorism should be conducted and compromise future cooperation.
"Mistakes were made in the reporting of the information," said Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman for President Bush. Johndroe insisted that cooperation between the U.S. and Britain would not be affected.
But as a sign of its concern, the State Department sent its top lawyer, John Bellinger, to London on Thursday on a two-day mission. Bellinger will try to defuse what many expect will be widespread anger at the United States.
The CIA said the refuelings were not uncovered until a "self-generated" review in late 2007 after persistent media reports, the department said.
"We regret that there was an error in initially providing inaccurate information to a good friend and ally," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "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."
He took pains to note that the United States had not violated any obligation it had toward Britain in using Diego Garcia for the flights at the time they occurred. Not until 2003 did the two countries start to work out a "final mutual understanding" that now requires the United States to seek and get British permission to use the base for renditions, he said.
The British government appears to have accepted the "administrative error" explanation. But London has made it clear that it wanted to review logs related to U.S. operations at Diego Garcia.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he "shared the disappointment that everybody has" about the use of Diego Garcia for the refueling stops and that it was important to ensure it would not happen again.
Rights groups demanded a full accounting of the CIA's rendition program, under which suspects are transported from one country to another, usually in secrecy, without the benefit of open legal proceedings.
"It's high time the agency is held accountable," said Julia Hall of Human Rights Watch. She also sought an investigation into the British role in the program. "The U.S. flew hundreds of flights across Europe so the only way to have full accountability is for (Britain) to launch a thorough, national investigation."
The story in short
The news: The United States acknowledges that it twice used a U.S. base on British soil in the Indian Ocean to refuel planes secretly transferring terrorism suspects. The CIA acknowledges that information - and denials - earlier given to the British "turned out to be wrong."
The explanation: U.S. officials say the repeated denials of secret renditions touching British soil were caused by an "administrative error."
The reaction: The British government appears to accept the "administrative error" explanation. But London insists on reviewing logs related to U.S. operations at Diego Garcia.
The upshot: The admission may renew debates between the U.S. and its allies over how to conduct the fight against terrorism and compromise future cooperation.