So far, the 251,287 secret State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks have been more embarrassing to the United States than particularly revealing. But one exchange between U.S. and German officials reveals a sad reality about the tangled web woven by the Bush administration when it decided to engage in torture -- and highlights how President Obama has kept the U.S. ensnared by that legacy.
According to this leaked document, the U.S. State Department in 2007 warned Germany that issuance of arrest warrants for CIA officers involved in the kidnapping of an innocent German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, imprisoned for months in Afghanistan and allegedly tortured there would "have a negative impact" on the two countries' relationship. Indeed, Deputy Chief of Mission John M. Koenig reminded German Deputy National Security Adviser Rolf Nikel that a similar move by Italy, which a year earlier had prosecuted CIA officers for their involvement in the kidnapping from Milan and rendition to Egypt of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, had "repercussions to U.S.-Italian bilateral relations."
According to the cable, which appears to summarize the two officials' conversation, "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."
In other words, the U.S. was warning Germany not to enforce its own laws against kidnapping and torture, or face serious negative consequences.
Khalid El-Masri was a German citizen mistakenly detained in Macedonia in late 2003 because his name was similar to that of a suspected al Qaeda terrorist, Khalid al-Masri. The CIA, eager to interrogate an al Qaeda operative, quickly stepped in and rendered El-Masri to its secret prison in Afghanistan known as "the salt pit" for interrogation. El-Masri claims he was beaten, stripped naked, deprived of minimally decent food and water and sodomized at the CIA prison. By April 2004, the CIA realized its agents had caught the wrong man. So more than a month later, they dumped El-Masri late one night on the side of a desolate road in Albania. Starved and disheveled, he was picked up by Albanian guards and eventually reunited with his family.
In 2005, El-Masri sued the U.S. government for his ordeal. But the Justice Department, in what's become a regular tactic when confronted with torture allegations, convinced a federal judge to dismiss the case on the grounds that it would reveal sensitive "state secrets."
Given this context, it's not exactly surprising that the State Department, faced a couple of years later with the news that German authorities planned to arrest CIA agents for their role, urged (or threatened) the Germans to refrain. But what the cables highlight is what an awkward, embarrassing, hypocritical and ultimately counterproductive position the whole extraordinary rendition program has boxed the United States into. Not only did the renditions violate international law and in at least some cases lead to the torture of wholly innocent victims, but the Obama administration's refusal to acknowledge the United States' role and provide redress has left it stuck in that cramped corner. Now, in order to avoid having to explain why the U.S. government is not investigating the criminal actions of its own officials, and why the U.S. repeatedly uses the "state secrets" defense to quash individual attempts at accountability, the United States has to quietly strong-arm its allies into not enforcing their own laws.
In Italy, as the secret cable acknowledges, the U.S. tried to prevent Italian prosecutors from going after 23 CIA agents who kidnapped Abu Omar off the streets of Milan and rendered him to Egypt to be interrogated under torture there. That effort failed, and the agents were convicted in absentia. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was apparently more successful in the case of El-Masri.
Sadly, the Obama administration has kept up the pretense that the United States knows nothing about these incidents and will not investigate further. Never mind that between the lawsuits, the news stories and now the Wikileaks cable, the entire world knows better.
When President Obama traveled to Asia recently, he called on the Indonesian government to exercise a leadership role in the G20 by "embracing transparency and accountability."
Upholding democracy and human rights is "an essential element of everything we do in U.S. foreign policy," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her speech kicking off the Asian tour. She added that "the US administration will work within international bodies like the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian nations "to pursue accountability and bring an end to human rights abuses."
Or not. The Bush administration pursued a program of torture that Obama has said reflected "us losing our moral bearings." But until President Obama acknowledges, investigates and accounts for it, he will keep the United States in that contorted position of instructing notorious dictators to respect human rights and hold violators accountable, while informing our democratic allies that it's in their best interest not to do the same.