MI6 believed it was close to finding the al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan in 1998, and again the next year. The plan was for MI6 to hand the CIA vital information about Bin Laden. Ministers including Robin Cook, the then foreign secretary, gave their approval on condition that the CIA gave assurances he would be treated humanely. The plot is revealed in a 75-page report by parliament's intelligence and security committee on rendition, the practice of flying detainees to places where they may be tortured.This can't be right, of course, because Bush and Cheney weren't in office in 1998 or 1999. And we all know 9/11 changed everything. And a change of Administration in 2008 will change everything back.
The report criticises the Bush administration's approval of practices which would be illegal if carried out by British agents. It shows that in 1998, the year Bin Laden was indicted in the US, Britain insisted that the policy of treating prisoners humanely should include him. But the CIA never gave the assurances.
"In 1998, SIS [MI6] believed that it might be able to obtain actionable intelligence that might enable the CIA to capture Osama bin Laden," the committee says in its report. It adds: "Given that this might have resulted in him being rendered from Afghanistan to the US, SIS sought ministerial approval. This was given provided that the CIA gave assurances regarding humane treatment." British intelligence made a similar request in 1999, and obtained the same response from Whitehall, but in the event MI6 did not provide the information.