Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

Leaked Cables Cast Light on Bungled CIA Kidnapping

NEW YORK, Nov 29 2010 (IPS) - Wikileaks’ spectacular paper dump of U.S. diplomatic cables may not yet have produced any blockbusters, but many of the restricted or secret documents released to the world on Sunday have served to peel back the scabs of serious injuries inflicted by the administration of George W. Bush.

For example, the documents reveal that U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador, William R. Timken Jr., sharply warned Germany in 2007 not to enforce arrest warrants for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers involved in a bungled operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was mistakenly kidnapped and held for months in Afghanistan.

A senior U.S. diplomat tells a German official “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.”

Observers are characterising that as the thinnest of veiled threats.

The German victim of mistaken identity is Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen. In a lawsuit brought by El-Masry, he alleged that he was kidnapped in 2004, “rendered” to Albania and then to Afghanistan, where he was falsely held by the CIA for several months – which the CIA acknowledges – and was beaten, drugged, and subjected to various other inhumane activity while in captivity.

Thinly-veiled threats

The cable details a discussion between the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) - one step below the ambassador - with German Deputy National Security Adviser Rolf Nikel.

The cable says: "The DCM reiterated our strong concerns about the possible issuance of international arrest warrants in the al-Masri case."

"The DCM noted that the reports in the German media of the discussion on the issue between the Secretary and [Foreign Minister] Steinmeier in Washington were not accurate, in that the media reports suggest the USG was not troubled by developments in the al- Masri case."

The cable went on to say: "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 Nikel of the repercussions to U.S.- Italian bilateral relations in the wake of a similar move by Italian authorities last year."

Politically speaking, said Nikel, "Germany would have to examine the implications for relations with the U.S. At the same time, he noted our political differences about how the global war on terrorism should be waged, for example on the appropriateness of the Guantanamo facility and the alleged use of renditions."

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 chancellor's office is well aware of the bilateral political implications of the case, but added that this case "will not be easy".

He was ultimately released by the CIA on a deserted road in Macedonia in the dead of night with no charge ever being brought against him by the U.S. government or anyone else.

In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union sued former CIA Director George Tenet and three U.S.-based aviation corporations that owned or operated the aircraft used by the CIA to render El-Masri to Afghanistan. The lawsuit charged Tenet and others with violating the U.S. constitution and universal human rights laws.

In May 2006, El-Masri’s court case was dismissed based on invocation of the “state secrets privilege” by the CIA. The U.S. District Court dismissed his case because, according to the court, the simple fact of holding proceedings would jeopardise state secrets, as claimed by the CIA.

On Mar. 2, 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision. On Oct. 9, 2007, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Fourth Circuit’s decision, letting the doctrine of state secrets privilege stand.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, told IPS, “There are innocent individuals who have been swept up in U.S. government counterterrorism operations, wrongly detained, ‘rendered’ surreptitiously to foreign countries, subjected to extreme physical and mental stress, or otherwise wronged.”

“In some cases, like those of persons such as Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri, efforts to seek legal remedies have been blocked by the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege,” he added. “As a result, the alleged abuses committed in such cases remain unresolved, and there is no way for the affected individuals to be made whole.”

Thwarted by U.S. Courts, El-Masri took his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR accepted a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

It asks the IACHR to declare that the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme violates the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, to find the U.S. responsible for violating El-Masri’s rights under that declaration, and to recommend that the U.S. publicly acknowledge and apologise for its role in El-Masri’s forcible disappearance, detention and torture.

At that time, Steven Watt, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Programme, told IPS, “This petition gives the U.S. yet another opportunity to account for one of the most heinous practices of the George W. Bush administration.”

“Our government kidnapped an innocent man, tortured him and then, adding insult to injury, denied him his day in court through bogus claims of harm to national security. President Obama has often stated that he wants to look forward, not backward. Engagement in this commission process will be a means of putting those words into action and revealing the truth to El-Masri and the American people,” he said.

The Wikileaks dump revealed a 2007 State Department document showing that the U.S. “warned” the German government against making any moves to secure the arrests of the CIA agents responsible for the kidnapping, saying any such move would have “repercussions” to the relationship between the two nations.

German officials, according to the document, conceded that they understood the possible diplomatic consequences but also warned that given the outcry from the German media, their options were limited. The U.S. admonished them to consider the “political context” of the kidnapping of the innocent man.

Despite the warnings, the German government did issue Interpol arrest warrants for CIA officials involved in the kidnapping, though they dropped them a few months later.

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