A British inquiry will investigate CIA prisoner transfer practices as part of a probe into claims that terrorism suspects were tortured after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, officials confirmed Wednesday.
The three-member panel, commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron to carry out a sweeping review of the country's role in the "war on terror," will scrutinize alleged British complicity in the secret U.S. rendition program.
Officials confirmed that the inquiry could see the heads of Britain's main spy agencies questioned in public for the first time.
The panel won't seek evidence from the U.S. or foreign allies, disappointing campaigners who hoped the study would be the most thorough yet of alleged murky practices by Western military and intelligence officials.
"Without a comprehensive examination of rendition, the drip-drip of allegations will continue. Far better to deal with it all now, draw a line and move on," said Conservative Party lawmaker Andrew Tyrie, who leads a parliamentary group that has led calls for greater scrutiny of the use of so-called extraordinary rendition _ which involved the beyond-the-law transfer of terrorism suspects from country to country by the CIA.
Details of the inquiry's remit were announced publicly on Wednesday. Before the release, two people familiar with the issue had disclosed to The Associated Press that the rendition program would be scrutinized.
Human rights advocates allege that the CIA used the program to outsource torture of detainees to countries where it is permitted.
In a 2007 probe conducted on behalf of the Council of Europe, Swiss politician Dick Marty accused 14 European governments of permitting the CIA to run detention centers or carry out rendition flights between 2002 and 2005.
Last year, Cameron ordered former appeals court judge Peter Gibson to lead a study into alleged British complicity in torture and mistreatment of terrorist suspects held overseas.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the inquiry was necessary to "clear the stain from our reputation as a country."
Britain has previously acknowledged that Diego Garcia, a British atoll in the Indian Ocean that hosts a U.S. military base, was twice used by the U.S. as a refueling stop during the 2002 secret transfers of two terrorism suspects.
It has also said that two suspected Pakistani militants detained by British troops in Iraq in 2004 were handed over to the U.S., and later covertly transferred to Afghanistan.
"The inquiry will be looking at whether U.K. government personnel were aware of, or involved in, the rendition of detainees from one country to another, and whether U.K. airports and U.K. airspace were used for this purpose," the panel said in a statement issued following publication of its remit.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of domestic spy agency MI5 who retired in 2007, has said previously that she believes the U.S. deliberately misled its allies over its handling of detainees.
In a document outlining its plans, the inquiry said spy agency chiefs and other key witnesses would be questioned in public unless to do so would compromise national security.
British spy chiefs are rarely seen in public and unlike their U.S. counterparts give evidence to legislative scrutiny committees in private.
"The heads and former heads of the security and intelligence agencies will be invited to give evidence on these issues, as far as possible, in public," the inquiry said.
Junior spies will be questioned in private, but ministers and other public officials will be expected to testify in public _ unless dealing with sensitive matters of national security.
"The potential for embarrassment to these witnesses will not justify secrecy," the inquiry said.
Cameron has said the inquiry will not begin until police complete an investigation opened in 2009 into allegations that an intelligence officer with the country's MI6 spy agency was complicit in the mistreatment of detainees overseas.
Some rights groups have complained that the final decision on whether or not evidence studied by the inquiry can be made public will be taken by senior government officials _ not the panel itself.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of rights group Reprieve, said the decision would effectively "give America a veto on much of what should be public."
The inquiry confirmed that _ despite calls from some campaigners _ it would not examine instances where detainees captured by British military forces were moved to other locations inside the same country. Britain's defense ministry is already studying those cases, it said.
Last year, Britain paid out settlements to a number of former Guantanamo Bay detainees who alleged U.K. complicity in their harsh treatment overseas, though the government did not admit any liability.
Britain's detainee inquiry: http://www.detaineeinquiry.org.uk/
David Stringer can be reached at twitter.com/david_stringer