CIA Flights in Europe: The Hunt for Hercules N8183J
A bitter debate over torture has erupted in Europe. Washington is believed to have used EU countries as transit points for moving terrorism suspects to clandestine locations where they may have been tortured. The Council of Europe and other organizations are now demanding answers -- from the US and European countries who looked the other way.
A solitary confinement cage at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Last Friday, the Swiss prosecutor made it clear that he has no compunctions about picking a fight with the world's sole remaining superpower. A self-confident Marty filed a request with the European Union's satellite center in Torrejón, Spain for satellite photographs from the past three years. He hopes to use the images to determine whether the alleged secret prisons did in fact exist, in countries like Poland and Romania. He also contacted the European aviation authority, Eurocontrol, asking for data on the flight movements of 31 aircraft suspected of having served as CIA shuttles for the transport of prisoners or abducted terrorism suspects.
Marty's mission touches on a hot-button issue -- and it's the first serious attempt to investigate and expose an arbitrary system Washington has allegedly used as one of its most effective weapons in combating terrorism. The US agents have used torture-like methods that many experts believe violate international law to extract statements from suspected members of al-Qaida. Until now, Washington's European allies have consistently looked the other way when it came to this notorious aspect of the worldwide counterterrorism effort.
A regular CIA gulag appears to have been created in recent years, with many prisoners kept in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and various central Asian nations, places where the CIA was given access to the prisoners at all times. Alvaro Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, also claims to have seen a suspicious-looking prison camp at Camp Bondsteel, an American base in Kosovo.
But the highest-ranking al-Qaida members are apparently kept moving with a small group of CIA interrogation experts, like an invisible caravan, from one of the so-called black sites to another. Outrage over claims that some of these secret prisons may be located at former military bases in Eastern Europe triggered the Council of Europe's investigation.
Turning a blind eye to human rights violations?
In the past, the Europeans turned a blind eye to the Americans' human rights violations. After all, Islamist terror was considered more dangerous and, more importantly, was being committed by a common enemy. But now European politicians have had enough.
Marty secretly hopes for trans-Atlantic cooperation, and he may well get it. A heated debate has broken out in the United States over whether the West's leading power can resort to torture when it believes its national security is under threat. The Bush administration's draconian methods have met with sharp resistance in the US Senate. US President George W. Bush, for his part, has threatened to veto an amendment that would require the CIA -- like any other US government agency -- to use only methods allowed under international law to extract information from its prisoners. Vice President Dick Cheney's vehement efforts to obstruct the amendment even prompted former CIA Director Stansfield Turner to angrily label Cheney a "vice president for torture."
Another amendment the US Congress recently approved would give the US government 60 days to present a detailed report on the secret CIA prisons, or black sites. Specifically, Congress wants information on both the locations of these sites and all the interrogation methods allegedly used there. In other words, it appears that the US Congress and Swiss prosecutor Marty are both urgently seeking the same information.
The Council of Europe's investigator already submitted a discreet request to the office of Democratic Senator John Kerry, who proposed the amendment, asking for information on the outcome of the report. Meanwhile, however, Marty can at least look forward to receiving informal help. In light of the heated debate over torture in Washington, the prospects of keeping the highly confidential report under wraps are slim.
The White House is increasingly coming under fire, especially in light of the difficulties Bush is having in convincing his fellow Americans that he is, in fact, winning the global war against terrorism. Indeed, every attempt on the part of the administration to suppress the revolt in the Senate against White House-sanctioned interrogation practices has so far failed.
The US does not engage in torture, but rather "unique and innovative" methods of prisoner interrogation, explains CIA Director Porter Goss. But what these methods entail has since become public knowledge. Under the policy, blows to the face and the abdomen are allowed, as is the apparently routine practice of forcing prisoners to stand for 40-hour periods in ice-cold cells while periodically spraying them with cold water. In an especially repugnant practice known as waterboarding, the prisoner is made to believe that he is drowning. "We must never simply fight evil with evil," says Republican Senator John McCain, himself a torture victim during the Vietnam War. "It will kill us."
European governments in the hot seat
The investigations in Europe are also acquiring a new sense of urgency, prompted by an official investigation request filed by the Council of Europe, which arrived in European capitals last Tuesday and has made officials nervous in several member states, including Germany. In a questionnaire accompanying the request, Terry Davis, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, asks for information on the "activities of foreign services" on German soil and demands an investigation into the possible abduction of suspected al-Qaida activists. The request also includes questions about prisoner "transport by air."
Graphic: Suspected CIA terror flights in Europe
British journalist Stephen Grey, who claims to have a list of the flight movements of CIA aircraft, says he has discovered 210 suspicious flights in England alone. In January 2003, the Austrian air force even sent up two fighter jets to check on a suspicious Hercules flying under registration number N8183J. An investigation later revealed that the plane had taken off from the Rhine-Main Airbase in Frankfurt and was operated by Tepper Aviation, which is considered a CIA front company.
The German government has long been unofficially aware of such episodes. But it too has no knowledge of what or who was actually being transported on the aircraft. Nevertheless, Berlin has yet to follow the lead of the Danish government, which insisted that the Pentagon discontinue flights in Danish airspace that are "incompatible with international conventions."
The Council of Europe also wants to know how the German government intends to ensure that such activities on the part of "foreign agencies" are monitored in the future -- and "to what extent domestic law provides for a suitable response to such violations of the law," especially when they relate to the "curtailment of liberty by foreign agencies."
In short, the Council of Europe wants to know what European governments intend to do about CIA agents being allowed to fly their prisoners across Europe with impunity. The Germans won't be the only ones with some explaining to do by Feb. 21, the deadline for all member states to return the questionnaire. The truth is that hardly any US ally in Europe has sufficiently met its obligation to comply with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits any form of torture.
In Germany, there is at least one documented case of the CIA abducting Khaled el-Masri, from the southern city of Neu-Ulm. The story of Masri, who was abducted in Macedonia in late 2003 and flown to Afghanistan in January 2004, is one of the first cases to expose the secret CIA program.
Masri, who has had a German passport for the past decade, was interrogated for months in a prison in Afghanistan, where he was likely tortured and, after no evidence was found to incriminate him, was secretly flown back to Europe in late May 2004. The case has drawn the attention of both the German and the Spanish authorities, because the aircraft used to transport Masri, a Boeing 737 with registration number N313P, was owned by a company with ties to the CIA and made a stop on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
The German government must have known about the allegations by no later than June 2004, when Masri's attorney, Manfred Gnjidic wrote to then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the Federal Chancellery. The authorities reacted as they often do in embarrassing situations, using behind-the-scenes diplomacy in an attempt to make the problem go away.
At first, agents with Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND), sent a discreet inquiry to their US counterparts with whom they normally enjoy a close working relationship. The reply was succinct: it was a mistake, the kind that happens now and then.
Then, in Feb. 2005, then Interior Minister Otto Schily flew to Washington and met with CIA Director Goss. Schily demanded an explanation and an assurance that the abductions would cease. But this time Schily, otherwise known for his good relationship with the Bush administration, came away more or less empty-handed.
In a similar case, the Italian Justice Ministry has attempted to exert pressure on its own judiciary. Justice Minister Roberto Castelli publicly chastised a Milan public prosecutor who caused trouble for Castelli by filing an extradition request for 22 CIA agents. Prosecutor Armando Spataro said that in February 2003 the US agents kidnapped Imam Abu Omar in broad daylight in Milan, placed him on a Lear jet operated by CIA airline Tepper Aviation, and sent him to Egypt via the US airbase in Ramstein, Germany. If Castelli sends the extradition request to Washington, the move will anger the Bush administration. But if he refuses, he'll irritate many Italians. To avert either outcome, Castelli first plans to meticulously examine the prosecutor's petition for signs of "leftist anti-Americanism."
Two Eastern European countries are coming under even more pressure than Germany or Italy: Poland and Romania, both countries that apparently served as temporary destinations for the CIA's secret al-Qaida transports. Insiders in Washington claim that the two countries also contained secret black sites.
The issue is especially worrisome to the Romanians. If investigator Marty, currently making inquiries in Bucharest, finds evidence of the existence of a secret US prison, the country's planned accession to the EU in 2007 could be in jeopardy. But all other Europeans who, despite not having actively supported the prisoner transports, looked the other way for too long will hardly be able to avoid coming clean. "If it becomes apparent that flying torture chambers are circling over Europe," threatens Martin Schulz, Social Democratic group leader in the European Parliament, "there will be no getting around an official inquiry."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Correction Appended: A correction has been made to this text. Through a translation error, SPIEGEL Online incorrectly stated that Khaled el-Masri was abducted by the CIA in the German city of Neu-Ulm. In fact, he was abducted in Macedonia.
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