Today’s document dump of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables, courtesy of WikiLeaks, is like Santa Claus came early. These confidential cables were exchanged between 250 US embassies and the State Department, a handful dating back to the 1960s and 1970s but most from the last few years. They contain harsh and diplomatically embarrassing assessments of foreign leaders, information about diplomatic arm twisting and bargaining, and under-the-wire politics such as the request by the Saudi regime for the US to bomb Iran. Twitter is aflutter with links to various cables, and Facebook is flush with commentaries on the revelations. Good times!
The readers of Jadaliyya might know of my own obsessions with torture, legal accountability for crimes of state, and the pernicious durability of human experimentation. My favorite WikiLeaked cable blends all three obsessions. Sent on February 6, 2007, from the US embassy in Berlin to the State Department, the subject line reads: “AL-MASRI CASE -- CHANCELLERY AWARE OF USG CONCERNS.” “USG” is shorthand for US Government, and “AL-MASRI CASE” refers to German criminal investigation into the US officials responsible for the kidnapping of German national Khaled El-Masri from Macedonia and his rendition to Afghanistan where he was tortured in a CIA black site. “CONCERNS” refers to the anxiety among officials, especially then-National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice, that Germany would actually enforce its own criminal laws and issue indictments for those responsible for El-Masri’s kidnapping and torture.
El-Masri, a greengrocer from Neu-Ulm, was vacationing with his family in Skopje in 2003 when he was stopped by Macedonian border guards because his name is similar to that of Khalid al-Masri, an alleged and at large mentor of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell (the two men’s names have different transliterated spellings in Roman letters). The Macedonians also believed that his German passport was a forgery. They contacted the local CIA station, whose operatives contacted the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. There it was decided to “extraordinarily render” El-Masri to Afghanistan, on the assumption that he was al-Qaeda al-Masri. When the Macedonians released him on January 23, 2004, a black-ops snatch-and-grab team kidnapped him, beat and stripped him naked, gave him an enema tranquilizer, and put him on a ghost plane for Afghanistan, via Baghdad.
In Afghanistan, El-Masri was held in the “salt pit,” a CIA black site, where he was deprived of food and drinkable water and, by his account, was sodomized. In February, local CIA agents decided that his passport might be genuine, meaning that they had kidnapped and were torturing the “wrong” person—note that it’s never ever “right” to torture even the “right” person. The passport was sent to Langley where, by March, they too concluded that it was genuine. But rather than releasing El-Masri, they continued to detain him.
In April 2004, CIA director George Tenet learned that El-Masri was wrongfully detained, and in early May, Rice ordered his release. But El-Masri was a diplomatic time bomb and the CIA was befuddled about how to defuse it. Only following a second order from Rice was he “released.” But how? Rather than being flown home to Germany, El-Masri was flown to Albania where he was dumped without money or papers on a remote road. Perhaps the CIA hoped that some bandits would find and kill him, thus relegating his story to permanent obscurity. But instead, the Albanian police who intercepted him eventually believed that he was a German and allowed him to return home. And so, the diplomatic bomb exploded after all.
El-Masri’s kidnapping and torture created a political scandal in Germany, and the government did what it should: it opened a criminal investigation. According to Scott Horton, “The criminal investigation was being handled by the Polizeipräsidium München, and the lead investigator had established through physical evidence that el-Masri`s claims to have been tortured and shot up with psychoactive drugs repeatedly over a course of approximately 6 months were correct (the abusive use of drugs was established through hair, nail and skin samples, the investigators are convinced that he was a subject of human experimentation, and that he has suffered irreversible psychological and physical damage from it).”
What did the US do? NSA head Rice and her legal counsel, John Bellinger, mounted a clandestine campaign warning the German government of adverse repercussions if they allowed the case to proceed. Again courtesy of Scott Horton, “Investigators handling it have argued that those who gave the orders for the seizure and torture (NSC level) are "primarily liable" for the crimes committed and should accordingly figure as the major targets of the criminal probe. They have apparently taken careful note of Rice`s statement to a Washington Post reporter that she ordered el-Masri`s ultimate release. This is viewed as confirmation of the fact that Rice exercised ultimate control over his detention.”
That anxious warning is the topic of the WikiLeaked secret cable, authored by Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) John M. Koenig. Here are a few of the high points:
From paragraph 1: The DCM noted that the reports in the German media…were not accurate, in that the media reports suggest the USG was not troubled by developments in the al-Masri case. The DCM emphasized that this was not the case and that issuance of international arrest warrants would have a negative impact on our bilateral relationship. He reminded [German Deputy National Security Adviser Rolf] Nikel of the repercussions to U.S.-Italian bilateral relations in the wake of a similar move by Italian authorities last year (emphasis mine). (Note that the “move by Italian authorities” refers to Italian prosecutors’ decision to prosecute 23 CIA agents for their role in the Milan kidnapping of Abu Omar and his extraordinary rendition to Egypt where he was brutally tortured. Most of the CIA agents, who were tried in absentia, were found guilty. They can never set foot in Europe again without risk of being extradited to Italy for punishment.)
From paragraph 2: The DCM 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 U.S. We of course recognized the independence of the German judiciary, but noted that a decision to issue international arrest warrants or extradition requests would require the concurrence of the German Federal Government…(emphasis mine). (How fine is the line between “threaten” and “urge,” and when is an independent judiciary expected to bow to a countervailing political will?)
From paragraph 3: From a judicial standpoint, the facts are clear, and the Munich prosecutor has acted correctly. Politically speaking, said Nikel, Germany would have to examine the implications for relations with the U.S. (emphasis mine). (The “facts” include material evidence of torture and human experimentation.)
From paragraph 4: Nikel also cited intense pressure from the Bundestag and the German media. The German federal Government must consider the "entire political context," said Nikel. He assured the DCM that the Chancellery is well aware of the bilateral political implications of the case, but added that this case "will not be easy" (emphasis mine). (Making this rendition-torture-of-a-German case go away will not be easy because German politicians and the media actually oppose torture.)
From paragraph 5: The DCM pointed out that the USG would likewise have a difficult time in managing domestic political implications if international arrest warrants are issued. He…expressed the hope that the Chancellery would keep us informed of further developments in the case, so as to avoid surprises. Nikel…reiterated that he could not, at this point "promise that everything will turn out well" (emphasis mine).
Turn out well it hasn’t! The Germans keep being reminded that America tortures. Two weeks ago, when George W. Bush’s new autobiography, Decision Points, hit the news and he preened about authorizing waterboarding, one German parliamentarian was quoted as saying, “We were beginning to think Bush wasn`t such a terrible fellow, then he opens his mouth and reminds us what a monster he always was.” Now with this cable, we see clearly that for the US government, a “good alliance” means never being made to say “I’m sorry” or holding individuals accountable for the perpetration of gross crimes. But the German criminal investigation is ongoing, with a particular focus on the use of US military facilities for criminal purposes. An embarrassment of justice might just happen, someday.