Europe in Uproar Over CIA Operations

Several countries are investigating alleged counter-terrorism missions on their turf, but some cases seem unlikely to advance.

By Tracy Wilkinson

Los Angeles Times

November 26, 2005

BARCELONA, Spain — From Scandinavia to the tropical Canary Islands, the CIA's clandestine use of European soil and airspace for counter-terrorism missions is triggering outrage, parliamentary inquiries and a handful of criminal prosecutions.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Europe was either silent about or unaware of the ways in which American agents operated within its borders. But in recent weeks several European governments have become much more vocal about alleged CIA activity in their jurisdictions.

Among the complaints: CIA operatives, without formal permission, have seized suspects in European cities and transported them to third countries for interrogation; CIA flights that have transported suspected terrorists around the world purportedly have used European airports for layovers; and the CIA may be operating clandestine prisons in Europe.

Officially, Europe, with its long history of respect for civil rights, has been lukewarm to U.S. counter-terrorism measures. To find itself the territory on which some of Washington's most controversial tactics are being played out has become a matter of much debate and soul-searching.

But prospects for holding the CIA to account appear to be fading in some countries.

Two countries where some of the strongest evidence has emerged are Italy, where prosecutors are attempting to arrest 22 CIA operatives, and Spain, where officials have confirmed a steady parade of purported CIA flights into the nation's airports.

In Germany, prosecutors are investigating both the alleged kidnapping by the CIA of one of its citizens and a number of suspicious flights into German air bases. Sweden and Norway launched investigations after similar incidents. The Dutch accused Washington of hiding its alleged use of secret prisons in Europe, and the 46-member Council of Europe told Romania to investigate reports that it was the site of such illegal detentions.

Investigations into alleged CIA landings or flyovers are underway in Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

The European Union said any of its members housing secret prisons for suspected Islamic terrorists, as first reported in the Washington Post, would be in violation of the law and subject to fines.

Spain this week said it would begin stricter monitoring of flights into its airports and closer screening of those aboard. This came after it was revealed that planes believed to be used by the CIA had landed at least 10 times at Spanish airports in 2004 and 2005 on excursions that had the earmarks of so-called extraordinary renditions — the transport of suspected terrorists from one country to another for interrogation that in some cases allegedly involves torture.

The first reports of the suspect air traffic were printed in a small local newspaper, the Diario de Majorca, in the Balearic Islands, where several of the flights landed.

As an investigation by Spanish Guardia Civil widened, similar flights were discovered to have touched down in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands.

One flight that originated at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States is holding hundreds of suspects, stopped over in Tenerife in April 2004 on its way to Bucharest, the Romanian capital.

The revelations have proved problematic for the leftist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. It was this government that, days after taking office last spring, pulled its troops from Iraq because of disagreement over the U.S.-led military occupation there. Spanish officials are reluctant to take on another fight with Washington.

Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, called on Thursday to report to parliament on the case, found himself on the defensive. He told legislators that it appeared no laws had been broken by the flights and that the government had received assurances from Washington that the planes were not being used to transport prisoners.

"The government is convinced that all of the stopovers took place within the framework of the law," Moratinos said, reading from prepared remarks amid repeated questioning.

Leftist legislators were openly incredulous, and even the right expressed perplexity over the foreign minister's justification of the U.S. action.

"You can say there is no evidence of a crime, but you cannot say there is no crime," Gaspar Llamazares of the United Left party told Moratinos.

The government's stance has not satisfied public opinion, either. A group of citizens is suing in Majorca. In the Canary Islands, Gov. Adan Martin demanded a fuller accounting.

"We need to be more vigilant," he said.

In Italy, prosecutors, using a trove of phone records and other paper trails, painstakingly documented CIA operatives' capture of a radical Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003. The cleric, known as Abu Omar, was bundled off to Egypt via Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and has claimed he was tortured by Egyptian authorities with U.S. officials present.

Over the summer, prosecutors issued arrest warrants for the agents. This month, following protocol, they asked the Italian Justice Ministry to demand the extradition of the agents from the U.S. But last week, Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, who answers to the pro-U.S. prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, questioned the motives of lead prosecutor Armando Spataro and called him a leftist militant.

The justice minister has not ruled definitively on the case.

In Germany, probes are proceeding on two fronts.

Eberhard Bayer, the public prosecutor in the region that covers the Ramstein base, in southwestern Germany, opened an investigation into the use of the base as a stopover in Abu Omar's abduction.

Suggestions that the CIA may have used U.S. bases in Germany to transport suspected terrorists have led some politicians to call for a federal investigation.

"The German foreign minister should have a talk with the U.S. ambassador," Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a top official with the Free Democratic Party, recently told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

"If the so-far-unproven accusations are correct, it would be outrageous."

Berliner Zeitung reported Tuesday that six CIA planes had stopped over at the Rhein-Main base near Frankfurt between December 2001 and August 2003. One of the aircraft was a Hercules C-130 that left Germany and headed for Baku, Azerbaijan, on Jan. 21, 2003.

In addition, Munich prosecutors opened an investigation this year into the alleged CIA kidnapping of Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who claims he was snatched in Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003. Masri says he was then flown by the CIA to a prison in Afghanistan, where he was held and interrogated for five months before being released, with neither charges nor apologies.

His lawyer, Manfred Gnjidic, said he planned to sue the U.S. government.

But the political situation is delicate in Germany at the moment also. The new chancellor, Angela Merkel, is keen to improve ties with Washington that were strained under her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. So although German politicians are demanding answers about CIA activities, Merkel may be reluctant to pursue them.

Romania denied reports by Human Rights Watch that it was the site of secret CIA-operated prisons for suspected terrorists, whose detention abroad would relieve U.S. officials of respecting the Geneva Convention or other human rights concerns. Poland, also mentioned by the New York-based organization, issued a similar denial.

"We do not keep terrorists here, nor do we interrogate them," said Jerzy Szmajdzinski, defense minister until a change of government a few days ago. "I exclude that such a situation took place in Poland."

Romania and Poland, which are emerging from communist pasts, are key allies in Washington's war on terrorism.


Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin and special correspondent Ela Kasprzycka in Warsaw contributed to this report.