Wikileaks: Bush and Obama Pressured Spain, Germany, not to Investigate U.S. Torture

By Andy Worthington 

In the relatively small number of US diplomatic cables released to date by WikiLeaks, from its cache of 251,287 documents, the most disturbing revelations concerning the “War on Terror” deal with the pressure that the Bush administration exerted on Germany in 2007, regarding the planned prosecution of thirteen CIA agents involved in the rendition and torture of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen seized as a result of mistaken identity, and the pressure that the Obama administration exerted on the Spanish government in 2009, to derail a criminal investigation into the role played by six senior Bush administration lawyers in establishing the policies that governed the interrogation — and torture — of prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.”

Neither of these developments had been reported prior to the release of the cables by WikiLeaks, and they are therefore extremely significant in establishing how long Bush administration officials were involved in fending off torture investigations overseas, and how eagerly Obama administration officials took up this role.

Suppression of a torture inquiry in Germany

In the first cable, sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from Berlin on February 6, 2007, by John M. Koenig, the senior career diplomat at the US Embassy in Berlin, following discussions with Rolf Nikel, the deputy national security advisor for Germany, Koenig explained how he emphasized to Nikel that “issuance of international arrest warrants would have a negative impact on our bilateral relationship.” In addition, he “reminded Nikel of the repercussions to US-Italian bilateral relations in the wake of a similar move by Italian authorities last year” (in the case of Abu Omar, discussed below), and “pointed out that our intention was not to threaten Germany, but rather to urge that the German Government weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US.”

What makes this thinly-veiled threat seem particularly harsh is the fact that El-Masri is the clearest case of mistaken identity in the whole of the “War on Terror.” Confused with another man of the same name who had liaised with the 9/11 kidnappers, he was seized in Macedonia as he tried to enter the country on a vacation on New Year’s Eve, 2002, and was then sent to the CIA’s notorious “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan, where he was “repeatedly beaten, drugged, and subjected to a strange food regime that he supposed was part of an experiment that his captors were performing on him” (as described by Scott Horton of Harper’s), until the CIA realized it had made a mistake, and reluctantly set him free, dropping him off in Albania and obliging him to make his own way home, and to try to put together the pieces of his shattered life.

Suppression of a torture inquiry in Spain

The second cable, dated April 17, 2009, and sent from Madrid, explained how US officials had manipulated Spanish officials to suppress an investigation into six former Bush administration lawyers — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, former chief of staff and legal adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, William Haynes, the Pentagon’s former general counsel, Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy, Jay Bybee, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and John Yoo, a former official in the Office of Legal Counsel — for “creating a legal framework that allegedly permitted torture.” A Spanish human rights group had filed the complaint the month before, contending that Spain had a duty to open an investigation under its “universal jurisdiction” law.

The cable reveals how US officials immediately began sounding out Spanish officials, and how, on April 15, an apparently unlikely figure for the Obama administration to embrace — Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who had recently been chairman of the Republican Party — attended a meeting between the US embassy’s charge d’affaires and the acting Spanish foreign minister, Angel Lossada, at which the Americans, repeating the same threatening language used in Germany in 2007, “underscored that the prosecutions would not be understood or accepted in the US and would have an enormous impact on the bilateral relationship” between Spain and the United States.

As the cable decribed it, “Lossada responded that the [Spanish government] recognized all of the complications presented by universal jurisdiction, but that the independence of the judiciary and the process must be respected.” However, he added that the government “would use all appropriate legal tools in the matter,” and that, although “it did not have much margin to operate,” would advise the Spanish Attorney General, Cándido Conde-Pumpido, that “the official administration position was that the [government] was ‘not in accord with the National Court.’”

The next day, Attorney General Conde-Pumpido “publicly stated that prosecutors will ‘undoubtedly’ not support [the] criminal complaint,” adding that he would “not support the criminal complaint because it is ‘fraudulent,’ and has been filed as a political statement to attack past [US government] policies.” He added that, “if there is evidence of criminal activity by [US government] officials, then a case should be filed in the United States.” In the cable, officials at the US embassy in Madrid congratulated themselves for their successful involvement in the case, noting that “Conde Pumpido’s public announcement follows outreach to [Spanish government] officials to raise [the US government's] deep concerns on the implications of this case.”

This was not quite the end of the story, as Conde-Pumpido had specifically taken aim at Investigating Judge Baltasar Garzón, “a world-renowned jurist,” who, as David Corn explained in an article for Mother Jones, “had initiated previous prosecutions of war crimes and had publicly said that former President George W. Bush ought to be tried for war crimes.” Garzón pressed ahead with the prosecution in September 2009, but when he ran into domestic problems, triggered by his enthusiasm for investigating war crimes committed under General Franco, the case was assigned to another judge, and the trail has since gone quiet. As David Corn explained, “The Obama administration essentially got what it wanted. The case of the Bush Six went away.”

Supression of torture inquiries in the US — and an unexpected conviction in Italy

As a result of these revelations, it is clear that the US government — under Bush and Obama — has been largely successful in preventing the prosecution of anyone involved in the horrendous human rights abuses initiated in the “War on Terror,” not just abroad, but also in the US. In the last year, fulfilling his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” which he expressed in January 2009, the week before he took office, President Obama has presided over the whitewash of a damning internal Justice Department report into John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee (who wrote and approved the notorious “torture memos” of August 2002, which attempted to redefine torture, so that it could be used by the CIA), and has cynically resorted to manipulating the little known and little used “state secrets” privilege to prevent the merest whisper of evidence regarding the torture of foreign prisoners to be discussed in a US court.

One unexpected exception to this global clampdown is Italy, where 22 CIA operatives and a US Air Force Colonel were convicted in absentia, in November 2009, for their part in the kidnapping, in broad daylight in a street in Milan on February 17, 2003 of the cleric Abu Omar, who was then rendered to Egypt, where he was subjected to horrific torture. The US government, of course, refused to allow these operatives to be extradited to Italy to face justice, but the ruling remains a permanent black mark against the Bush administration, which can never be washed away or concealed, and the entire sordid story has recently been covered, in extraordinary detail, by Steve Hendricks in his book, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial.

Trouble ahead in Spain, Germany, Macedonia, Lithuania, Poland and the UK

Moreover, it may be that, despite the success of the US efforts in Germany and Spain, further troubles lie ahead in both countries. In May 2010, Spain picked up where Germany left off regarding the prosecution of the thirteen CIA agents responsible for the torture of Khaled El-Masri, when prosecutors attached to the Audiencia Nacional in Madrid asked a judge to issue an order for the agents’ arrest, and, as Scott Horton also reported at the time, “A criminal proceeding relating to the kidnapping and torture of El-Masri is also underway in Germany.”

In addition, in 2009, as Amrit Singh of the Open Society Justice Initiative explained in a recent article on the Huffington Post, the OSJI filed an application on El-Masri’s behalf against the Macedonian government before the European Court of Human Rights. Singh continued:

In October 2010, the European Court communicated the case to the Macedonian government. This is a significant development, as only about ten percent of all cases brought before the European Court get communicated. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that the European Court has asked the Macedonian government a set of pointed questions, including whether agents of the Macedonian government detained El-Masri and subjected him to torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment; whether Macedonian government agents handed him over to a CIA rendition team; whether the Macedonian government was aware that El-Masri faced a real risk of being subjected to torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment if transferred to the Salt Pit; and whether Macedonia had conducted an effective official investigation of this case.

In addition, it is possible that further problems — which seem already to have gone beyond the reach of US diplomatic bullying — relate to investigations in Lithuania, Poland and the UK.

As Amnesty International noted in its recent report, “Open secret: Mounting evidence of Europe’s complicity in rendition and secret detention,” Lithuania, whose role as the host of a secret CIA prison in Europe — along with Poland and Romania — was most recently exposed in a United Nations report on secret detention, “has admitted that two secret prisons existed.” Significantly, “The prisons were visited in June 2010 by a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the first visit by an independent monitoring body to a secret CIA prison in Europe,” and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

Although Romania continues to deny hosting a secret prison, it is implicated in documents issued by Poland’s Border Guard Office in July 2010, which, as I explained in an article at the time, provided, for the first time, “details of the number of prisoners transferred by the CIA to a secret prison in Poland between December 5, 2002 and September 22, 2003, and, in one case, the number of prisoners who were subsequently transferred to a secret CIA prison in Romania.” The revelations led immediately to claims that former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and former President Aleksander Kwasniewski “may face war crime charges for agreeing to host the facility,” and in September, as Amnesty described it, “the prosecutor’s office confirmed that it was investigating claims by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri [one of 14 "high-value detainees eventually transferred to Guantánamo, in September 2006], that he was held in secret in Poland.” Moreover, al-Nashiri “was granted ‘victim’ status in October 2010, the first time a rendition victim’s claims have been acknowledged in this context.”

In the UK, British complicity in US torture has been acknowledged, through the deliberations of judges, since August 2008, when two high court judges, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones, found that the British government had been involved in “wrongdoing” in the case of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who spent over two years being tortured in Pakistan, Morocco and the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul, before he was sent to Guantánamo. Mohamed was released in February 2009 — in the hope, shared by both the British and the American governments, that his release would shut down any further interest in his case — but in fact Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones continued to fight against foreign secretary David Miliband’s refusal to allow them to release a summary of documents provided by the US, relating to Mohamed’s treatment by US agents in Pakistan.

Finally in February this year, 18 months after their initial ruling, the Court of Appeal ordered the documents to be released, and it was finally revealed that the summary described a range of techniques, which, in the judges’ opinion, “could readily be contended to be at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities,” including “continuous sleep deprivation,” combined with “threats and inducements,” including the threat of “disappearing.” As the judges also explained, “the stress brought about by these deliberate tactics” was “causing him significant mental stress and suffering,” to the extent that he was being “kept under self-harm observation.”

Although a Metropolitan Police investigation was launched into Mohamed’s allegations, this investigation recently concluded with an announcement that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the MI5 officer, known as Witness B, “for any criminal offence arising from the interview of Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan on 17 May 2002.”

However, the larger picture of British complicity in torture has refused to go away. Three weeks ago, the British government announced that it had reached a substantial financial settlement with 15 former Guantánamo prisoners — and with one man, Shaker Aamer, who is still held — to staunch the flow of dangerous documents being released as part of a civil claim for damages brought by a number of former prisoners. These had already revealed uncomfortable truths about the complicity in torture of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former foreign secretary Jack Straw, and although David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the new coalition government, hopes to prevent any further damning revelations emerging, by announcing that a judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture will be held, directed by Sir Peter Gibson, who was previously responsible for overseeing the conduct of the security services, it is by no means certain that the inquiry will be able to halt further revelations, some of which may well involve the US.

It may be that further documents in WikiLeaks’ cache of diplomatic cables deal with the torture problems encountered in the UK since 2008, and with some of the other cases mentioned above, and it is also worth reflecting that, for the foreseeable future, diplomats may find it harder than before to exert pressure to suppress evidence of US torture, having suffered something of a hammer blow to their credibility through the documents released to date.

As a result, this is probably a good time for those in other countries who wish to hold the US government accountable for torture to press ahead with their claims and their cases, and if this is so, then on this point alone WikiLeaks’ disclosures will have been invaluable.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon. 

 

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