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Wikileaks Cables Reveal Obama Administration Tried To Thwart Torture Prosecutions

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Earlier this week we learned from Wikileaks that the Bush Administration tried to stop Germany from investigating the CIA's alleged torture of a German citizen, Khalid El-Masri, who'd been mistaken for an al Qaeda terrorist and imprisoned in Afghanistan. I observed that the Obama Administration would have been hard-pressed to take a different position, given that it's refused to investigate (or allow others to sue over) those claims itself.

Now, David Corn in Mother Jones has documented that the Obama administration has, in fact, done just what I thought it would: it's continued the Bush policy of interfering in other countries' attempts to apply the rule of law.

As the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on Tuesday, a series of cables reveal that U.S. officials pressured Spain's chief prosecutor to get the courts to drop the potential criminal investigations of senior U.S. officials for their roles in the torture of detainees in U.S. custody. U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales, former vice presidential chief of staff David Addington, former Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Baybee, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, and former DOD General Counsel William Haynes were all named as potential targets.

As El Pais put it (translation by Scott Horton at Harper's):

the Embassy of the United States in Madrid wielded powerful resources in an extraordinary effort to impede or terminate pending criminal investigations in Spain which involved American political and military figures assumed to have been involved in incidents of torture in Guantánamo, violations of the laws of war in Iraq or kidnappings in connection with the CIA's extraordinary renditions program.

But those "powerful resources" did not end with the Bush administration. As Corn points out:  "A 'confidential' April 17, 2009, cable sent from the US embassy in Madrid to the State Department--one of the 251,287 cables obtained by WikiLeaks--details how the Obama administration, working with Republicans, leaned on Spain to derail this potential prosecution."

The US Embassy started tracking the case as soon a Spanish human rights group requested the investigation in March 2009.  But after Republican Senators Judd Gregg and Mel Martinez got involved, the Obama administration's chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Spain became more active as well.  According to the cable, the Americans "underscored that the prosecutions would not be understood or accepted in the US and would have an enormous impact on the bilateral relationship" between Spain and the United States. As Corn recounts: "Here was a former head of the GOP and a representative of a new Democratic administration (headed by a president who had decried the Bush-Cheney administration's use of torture) jointly applying pressure on Spain to kill the investigation of the former Bush officials."

As I noted in my earlier post on the El-Masri case, it's not all that surprising that the U.S. government wouldn't want its own senior officials prosecuted in another country. But for the Obama administration to play such an active role in thwarting the ordinary course of an ally's judicial system which was investigating crimes that President Obama had himself decried is pretty disturbing.

Horton put it this way yesterday: "These cables show that the U.S. embassy in Madrid had far exceeded [its] mandate . . . and was actually successfully steering the course of criminal investigations, the selection of judges, and the conduct of prosecutors." In Spain, the "disclosure has created deep concern about the independence of judges in Spain and the manipulation of the entire criminal justice system by a foreign power."

The way the Obama administration is wielding its power to thwart the rule of law abroad ought to create deep concern in the United States as well.