The invitation comes against the backdrop of a growing furor surrounding allegations that Shannon airport is being used by so-called CIA “rendition” flights for the movement of prisoners as part of the war against terror.
And it follows assurances given by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Shannon has never been, and is not currently, a stopping off point for such flights.
Those assurances, delivered directly to Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern in Washington last week, have failed to quell concern over the issue, however.
Information released to RTE, the Irish national television and radio network, and figures unveiled by Amnesty International, point to dozens of CIA flights in and out of Shannon in recent years.
Whether those flights actually carried prisoners under the “extraordinary rendition” program is not clear.
A total of 38 flights involved in the program passed through Shannon since 2001, figures released to RTE under Ireland’s Freedom of Information Act have shown.
The clandestine flights reportedly involve the abduction of terrorism suspects and their transfer to eastern European and middle eastern countries for interrogation.
Opponents of the program have claimed that suspects are routinely tortured while under questioning.
More recently it has been reported that many prisoners are transported to secret interrogation centers in Poland and Romania – so-called “black sites.”
The Irish government has repeatedly stated that it accepts U.S. assurances that none of the planes that have passed through Shannon were carrying prisoners. However, it is known that, on at least one occasion, Shannon has been used as a refueling stop during a “rendition” operation.
Officials in Ahern’s department are known to have concerns about the legality of such an operation under international law.
Officials maintain that the U.S. can only use Shannon for transporting prisoners if it first acquires permission from the Irish government. They say that were such a request to be made, it would be immediately rejected.
Nonetheless, critics of the Irish government’s handling of the controversy maintain that it needs to go further in order to ensure that Ireland is not taking part in the program.
Speaking Monday, the Green Party foreign affairs spokesman, John Gormley called on Garda officers to board the CIA jets in Shannon for inspection.
“All the indications are that terrorist suspects are being transported on these planes in breach of international law,” said Gormley. “Dermot Ahern’s statement that we accept the word of a friendly nation simply isn’t good enough.”
The presence of CIA jets on Irish soil has been well documented by a group of plane-spotters at Shannon.
The first, a Gulfstream jet with call-sign N379P, is known to have used the airport on numerous occasions since 2001. The plane’s registration plate has been changed several times.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has stated that it had information that proved that prisoners have been moved through the County Clare airport in at least 50 flights.
“On Feb. 17, 2003, for instance, the Gulfstream IV, N85VM took Abu Omar from Ramstein to Cairo, then turned around and flew to Shannon, arriving at 0552 on the 18th,” Amnesty stated in a report released in Brussels.
The Amnesty claim that Shannon has been used by the CIA reflects similar claims by other rights groups, including Human Rights Watch in New York.
The New York Times reported in recent days that there were 33 flights through Ireland “known to be operated by CIA companies” since Sept. 11, 2001.
During their meeting last week, Secretary Rice told Dermot Ahern that the U.S. had not used Shannon for prisoner flights.
Ahern said after the meeting that he had told Rice that it would be illegal to transit prisoners for rendition purposes through Shannon.
“The U.S. Secretary of State confirmed their previous assurances that they have not done so and would not do so,” Ahern said. “She was very categorical that Shannon has not been used for anything untoward. We fully accept the categorical assurance of a friendly nation.
“These assurances have been regularly received through our diplomatic channels in Dublin and Washington. The government will continue to follow the long-standing practice over many years whereby information provided by the U.S. authorities is accepted in good faith as being accurate,” the minister added.
“However, let me make it clear, if anyone has credible evidence that Shannon Airport, or indeed any other Irish airport, has been used for prisoner rendition, this should be brought to the attention of the Garda authorities.”
While denying the use of Shannon by rendition flights, Secretary Rice, who is in Europe this week, has confirmed their existence.
At the same time she has stressed that prisoners carried on such flights have never been subjected to torture.
Ray O’Hanlon in New York contributed to this report.