On the small, remote island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean halfway
between Africa and Indonesia, the United States has one of the most secretive
military bases in the world.
From its position almost 16,000 kilometers closer to the Persian Gulf than the
east coast of the United States, this huge US air and naval base has been a
major, if little known, launch pad for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the past year, the George W Bush administration has made improvements that
point toward its use in a possible attack on Iran. The administration recently
admitted what it had long denied and what journalists, human-rights
investigators and others had
long suspected: the island has also been part of the Central Intelligence
Agency's (CIA's) secret "rendition" program for captured terrorist suspects.
While few know about the base on Diego Garcia - it has long been off-limits to
all non-military personnel - it is hardly better known how it came into being.
To create the base, the United States, with the help of Great Britain, exiled
all the indigenous people of Diego Garcia and the surrounding Chagos
Between 1968 and 1973, US and British officials forcibly removed about 2,000
people, called Chagossians, 2,000 kilometers away to islands in the western
Indian Ocean. Left on the docks of Mauritius and Seychelles with no
resettlement assistance, the Chagossians, whose ancestry in Chagos dated to the
18th century, have grown deeply impoverished in exile.
Diego Garcia has become another Guantanamo in more ways than one: the product
of years of deception and lies, a far more secretive detention facility than
the Cuban prison, the cause of immense suffering and pain for an entire people,
it has become a mark of shame for the United States that must be repaired.
Creating a base, expelling a people
The Chagossians' ancestors first settled the previously uninhabited Chagos
Archipelago in the late 18th century when their ancestors were brought from
Africa and India as enslaved and indentured laborers to build and work on
coconut plantations run by Franco-Mauritians. Over nearly two centuries, this
diverse group developed into a distinct, emancipated society and a people known
initially as the Ilois - the Islanders.
While far from luxurious, their life by the mid-20th century was secure,
generally free of want, and featured universal employment and numerous social
benefits, including regular if small salaries, land, free housing, education,
pensions, burial services, and basic health care in islands described by many
That is until the late 1950s, when US military officials identified Diego
Garcia as a perfect location for a base. In many ways, the original idea for
Diego Garcia presaged the "lily pad" basing strategy of today: facing a wave of
decolonization, national security officials worried about rising local
opposition to overseas US bases and the threat of eviction posed by local
At the same time, officials increasingly wanted to introduce US military forces
into the Indian Ocean as a way to exert control over the Middle East and
surrounding areas of the decolonizing world. Their solution was what the US
Navy called the "Strategic Island Concept", a plan to identify small
strategically located islands with small populations that the US or its Western
allies could acquire as future base sites and that would be insulated from any
Quickly, Diego Garcia emerged as a prime target for acquisition, given its
relative proximity to potential conflict zones from the Persian Gulf to
southern Africa and southern Asia, space for harboring an armada of ships and
an airstrip, and a small, little-known population whose removal would generate
In 1960, the US Navy began secret conversations with the British government
about Diego Garcia. Over the next several years, US officials secured British
agreement to turn the island into a military colony, called the British Indian
Ocean Territory, and, as classified documents show, to provide "exclusive
control" of Diego Garcia "without local inhabitants".
The two governments finalized the deal with a 1966 "exchange of notes" that in
key respects resembles the recent "declaration of principles" on the future US
military presence in Iraq signed by the George W Bush administration and the
Iraqi cabinet: it effectively created a treaty but circumvented all
congressional and parliamentary oversight. Separate secret agreements provided
for US$14 million in undisclosed US payments to allow Britain to create the
territory and to take those "administrative measures" necessary to deport the
Those measures meant that beginning in 1968, islanders leaving Chagos for
vacations or medical treatment on the island of Mauritius were barred from
returning to their homes and marooned 2,000 kilometers away. British officials
next began restricting supplies to the islands, and by the turn of the decade
more Chagossians were leaving as food and medicines dwindled.
In cooperation with US officials, the British meanwhile designed a public
relations plan aimed at, as one official put it, "maintaining the fiction" that
the Chagossians were transient contract workers rather than people with roots
in Chagos for five generations or more.
In 1971, the US Navy began construction on Diego Garcia and ordered the British
to complete the removals. First, British agents and US soldiers on Diego Garcia
herded up the Chagossians' pet dogs and gassed and burned them in front of
their traumatized owners. Then, British agents forced the people to board
overcrowded cargo ships and left them on the docks in Mauritius and the
On arrival, the Chagossians received no resettlement assistance and soon found
themselves living in what a 1975 Washington Post article called "abject
poverty". Numbering about 5,000 today and still in exile, most remain deeply
Wars for oil and global dominance
While the Chagossians were being exiled, the Pentagon sold Diego Garcia to
Congress as an "austere" communications facility. As its planners had always
envisioned, however, it soon expanded dramatically. It was pressed into service
almost immediately as a base for reconnaissance planes in the 1973 Israeli-Arab
war. In the years that followed, the base played a central role in the first
large-scale thrust of US military strength into the Middle East.
After the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979,
presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan developed a "Rapid Deployment Force"
(RDF) at bases in the region to respond to any future threats to US and Western
oil supplies. As a main hub for the RDF, Diego Garcia saw the "most dramatic
buildup of any location since the Vietnam War".
Subsequently, the RDF transformed into the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which
came to lead wars in Iraq and Afghanistan directly related to securing US and
global oil supplies and maintaining the regional and global dominance of the
United States. Diego Garcia played a critical role in each war. During the
first Gulf War in 1991, Diego Garcia sent 18 prepositioned ships from its
lagoon loaded with weaponry and supplies to outfit thousands of marines massing
in Saudi Arabia while serving as a launch pad for long-range bombers attacking
After the 1991 war, the military began transforming the island into one of a
handful of major "forward operating bases" as part of a shift of US forces
eastward away from European bases. The dream for many in the military became
the ability to strike any location on the planet from Barksdale air base in
Louisiana, Guam in the Pacific or Diego Garcia.
Following the September 2001 attacks on the United States, the base assumed
even more importance in the eyes of military officials. Within weeks of
September 11, the Pentagon added 2,000 US Air Force personnel at a new 12
hectare housing facility called "Camp Justice".
In the 2001 war, B-1, B-2 and B-52 bomber flights originating on Diego Garcia
dropped more ordnance on Afghanistan than any other units. Leading up to the
invasion of Iraq, weaponry and supplies prepositioned in the lagoon were again
among the first to arrive at staging areas near Iraq's borders. The once-secret
2002 "Downing Street" memorandum showed that US war planners considered basing
access on Diego Garcia "critical" to the invasion. Bombers from the island
ultimately helped launch the Bush administration's tragic war that has led to
the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of US troops.
In early 2007, as the Bush administration was upping the tenor of its rhetoric
against Iran and threatening another invasion, the Defense Department awarded a
$31.9 million contract to build a new submarine base on the island. The subs
can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles and ferry US Navy SEALs for amphibious
missions behind enemy lines. Around the same time, the military began shipping
extra fuel supplies to Diego Garcia for possible wartime use.
Long off limits to reporters, the International Committee of the Red Cross and
all other international observers and far more secretive than Guantanamo Bay,
many long suspected the island was a clandestine CIA "black site" for
Journalist Stephen Grey's 2006 book Ghost Plane documented the presence
on the island of a CIA-chartered plane used for rendition flights. On two
occasions, former US Army General Barry McCaffrey publicly named Diego Garcia
as a detention facility. A Council of Europe report named the atoll, along with
facilities in Poland and Romania, as a secret prison.
For more than six years, US and British officials adamantly denied the
allegations. This February, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced
to parliament: "Contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia has
not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed
two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred."
A representative for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Rice called
Miliband to express regret over the "administrative error". The State
Department's chief legal adviser said CIA officials were "as confident as they
can be" that no other detainees had been held on the island, and CIA director
Michael Hayden continues to deny the existence of a CIA prison on the island.
Within days, United Nations special investigator Manfred Novak announced new
evidence that others had been imprisoned on the island. Many suspect the United
States may hold detainees on secret prison ships in Diego Garcia's lagoon or
elsewhere in the waters of Chagos.
Resistance and remedy
Since their expulsion, the Chagossians have protested in the streets,
petitioned and held hunger strikes to regain the right to return to their
homeland and win proper compensation for their expulsion.
In recent years, they have taken the US and British governments as well as
former US government officials and military contractors to court over their
claims. To date, US courts have found no wrongdoing on the part of the
government, its officials, or contractors for what one judge described as the
"improper misplacement of the plaintiffs". The government has consistently
denied all responsibility for the Chagossians.
In Britain, by contrast, the islanders have won three major victories over the
British government. Three times - in 2000, 2006 and 2007 - the High Court in
London has ruled the islanders' expulsion illegal under English law. In June,
the people will head to the House of Lords, Britain's highest court, for the
government's final appeal over the right to return. Another victory could
finally open the way for a return to Chagos.
With support for the Chagossians' struggle growing in both the US and Britain
at the same time that revelations about a secret CIA prison are spreading, the
US must finally act to remedy the damage done by another Guantanamo damaging
too many lives and undermining its international legitimacy.
The US must allow the Chagossians to return and assist Britain in paying them
proper compensation; the US must close the detention facilities and open Diego
Garcia to international investigators; the US must end the painful irony that
is a base the military calls the "Footprint of Freedom".
David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University
in Washington, DC. His book Island of Shame: The Secret History of
Exile and Empire on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press) will appear in