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The CIA archipelago

About the author
Michael Naumann is the Editor/Publisher of Germany's influential weekly Die Zeit. He was previously was German Minister of Culture from 1998-2000.

The Council of Europe, the European Commission, members of the European parliament, politicians from across Europe – including Germany’s new foreign minister, Frank Steinmeier – are shaken, stupefied and outraged as well as being mistrusted. Nato’s principal ally, Europe’s most important trade partner, and the only remaining global power – the United States of America – has purportedly used the territory of the old world illegally to transport prisoners of its “war on terror”.

The collective force of these reactions has pushed Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, into an emergency restatement of the administration’s public stance on the treatment of such captives. But any attempt at closure is premature when the full scale of what has happened is yet to emerge.

The CIA is said to have run secret interrogation centres in Poland and Romania, where captives of the war have been questioned and possibly tortured. The terms of Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights stipulate that both countries must present the otherwise politically meek European Council with a truthful account of any such circumstances. Both states have denied the allegations – so far.

The allegations are not new: Germany’s then interior minister, Otto Schily, as long ago as February 2005 interceded with Porter Goss, director of the CIA, regarding the abduction of the German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who was returned to Germany in a CIA aircraft after having endured torture in Afghanistan.

Also in February, the (London) Independent reported that two airplanes working for the CIA were using airports in Great Britain and Ireland to move secret prisoners. It has taken nine months for Europe’s political institutions to wake up and begin investigations. In Frankfurt alone, around eighty-five CIA transports are said to have occurred between 2002 and 2004. If true, Germany will against its will have again become an accessory to torture procedures.

Also published by openDemocracy on the human-rights violations of the “war on terror”:

David Rose, “Guantánamo: America’s war on human rights” (September 2004)

Clive Stafford Smith, “Torture: an idea for our time” (August 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, “Captured by Guantánamo” (September 2005)

Andrew Blick & Stuart Weir, “The rules of the game: Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy” (November 2005)

Isabel Hilton, “America’s secret prisons: Alvaro Gil-Robles interviewed” (November 2005)

Mats Engström, “The European union’s anti-terror plans: lift the secrecy” (November 2005)

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What information there was about what Der Spiegel called “archipelago CIA” in Europe came from the Washington Post, which relied on sources from within the agency itself who clearly disagree with the direction the United States has taken since 11 September 2001. Those within the White House and security agencies who advocate torture can no longer rely on the discretion their employees, or of the country’s other political leaders; Senator John McCain, who was himself tortured in Vietnam, is only one figure who has forcefully articulated resistance to the evidence of growing human-rights abuses under the juridisiction of the current holders of office.

This rift within the US is happening at an inconvenient moment for Germany’s new “grand coalition”. How will Angela Merkel react? The German chancellor tends to stay loyal to old allies, come what may. But the years are gone when Germany’s Washington correspondents could guaranteed a place in the bestseller lists by writing books with titles like Our America (Dieter Kronzucker) or The Foreign Friend: America (Klaus Harprecht).

Our America and Europe have, at least on a political level, become more and more alienated from Bush-year to Bush-year – to an extent that even the stereotypical charge of “anti-Americanism” has been silenced. America has turned into a torture state. If there is anything consoling in this accusation, it is that the proof offered lies within the American political system itself – uncovered by civil-society organisations like Human Rights Watch, newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, as well as by Congressional committees.

The label “torture state” has – if execution of a human being is the ultimate form of torture – been an accurate description of the United States for a long time already. During his time as governor of Texas, George W Bush denied more than 150 “death row” inmates any form of pardon. Yet now, as president, George W Bush reiterates: “We do not torture.” His vice-president, Dick Cheney is of another opinion. America, he said after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, has to “take different, new routes” to counter terrorism.

Today, things have gone further than the fathers of the constitution Cheney was appointed to serve could ever have imagined. The recommendation from a defence secretary of a Nato state, Donald Rumsfeld, to leave captives standing up for as long as ten hours is one of the most horrible torture methods, redolent of the tradition of the Soviet Union’s NKVD. “I myself”, scribbled Rumsfeld on a torture memorandum, “also stand for ten hours a day.” Not, however, in the manner of a prisoner in a cell in Bagram, Afghanistan, who – as was proved by Pentagon lawyers – was chained to a wall on his tiptoes until he died.

A war of shadows

The CIA since 9/11 has followed the secret services of totalitarian states by establishing its own prisons whose captives are beyond all civil rights and secured against any access to the American legal system. The New York Times reports that the American secret service currently holds “two to three dozen” captives and “more than 100 have been moved by the secret service from one country to another”, where they are questioned – or, as escapees report, also tortured – by local police or soldiers commissioned by, and sometimes also in the presence of, Americans. There is no other way to explain the American air traffic over Europe than that suspects are “in the baggage”.

In countries where investigations are still carried out with metal instruments, Washington evidently hopes to discover through local forces what they possibly would not find out with less brutal methods. The ten officially recognised “innovative interrogation methods” (CIA director Porter Goss) include known totalitarian horror techniques like sleep deprivation (a Bolshevik favourite, as described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago), deafening heavy-metal music, hypothermia and submerging under water (“submarine” or “waterboarding”, a notorious technique of Latin American dictatorships).

Any confessions thus achieved would be useless in American courts due to the constitution, and have therefore not yet been used as damaging evidence in the public processes against the few American citizens accused or suspected of a terror crime. In any case, they are in principle as unreliable as those achieved from “witches” or heretics in Europe’s dark era of inquisition. But such historical truths are as irrelevant to Washington’s executives as the international convention against torture.

The British foreign office was also totally uninterested in the incidence of “submarine” in Uzbekistan – this time probably in boiling water – reported by its dismayed ambassador Craig Murray in 2004, inflicted on two Uzbek prisoners in Tashkent. The very man now assigned to investigate the CIA’s scheme, in the name of the European Union, is Murray’s ex-boss, the British foreign secretary Jack Straw.

The practice of torture in the “war on terror” has caused a deep rift in the republican constitution of the United States which will not be easy to close – unless the Bush government radically changes course. The system of “checks and balances” is shaken. The Senate has ratified with a 90% vote in favour a domestic and overseas torture ban which basically reaffirms all the relevant international conventions to which the United States has subscribed, yet it is now threatened with veto by George W Bush – the first veto of his term in office.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon still exercises military rights over their Islamic captives, refusing to grant them the status of conventional prisoners of war which would protect them under international law as laid out in the Hague or Geneva conventions. Held under the fantasy title “enemy combatant” – even though most were not taken in combat – they are lost people without a claim to trial, lawyer or even the rule of law.

Among Michael Naumann’s other writings on openDemocracy:

Germany isn’t working” (May 2003)

Gerhard Schröder’s last stand” (May 2005)

Germany’s unfinished business” (June 2005)

Germany’s election sleepwalk” (August 2005)

The outrageous actions in the American prisons of Guantanamo, Bagram (where several prisoners were beaten to death by American soldiers), and Mosul – as well as Abu Ghraib – have become notorious around the world. US military lawyers are investigating – if very reluctantly – the details of twenty-six fatalities in Iraqi and Afghan dungeons. There are also more than 300 torture accusations on record in the Pentagon, many stemming from protesting soldiers. And, at least since Jane Meyer reported in the New Yorker (February 2005) on the “outsourced torture methods” of the Bush administration, it has been known that terror suspects have been deported to countries with appalling human-rights records: Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Jordan. This project, involving four countries on the US’s list of states using torture, has added a neologism to the war’s litany: “rendition”.

The law in danger

The occasional collaboration of the British secret service MI6 in such events seems not to have disturbed the European Union and the European Council until recently. Any confirmation that the Polish secret service used dirty interrogation methods in a damaging alliance with American colleagues would push the European Union into a serious moral crisis: how could the union deal politically with a new member that has returned to the policing methods of its communist past? At least in the case of Romania, no one could claim surprise.

The foreign political influence of Germany is too small to successfully force the United States to cease using torture and deny its captives civil rights. Angela Merkel’s government is however being asked to explain to parliament and the public for how long German secret services have been aware of American prisoner transports across German soil – and if these services have taken part in interrogations in other countries.

A parliamentary select committee could erase the growing suspicion, and a grand coalition could expect a more forgiving response to possible state violations of the law. Its members would have to accept criticisms that in giving credence to the allegations of complicity in torture they were being alarmist; though as Aristotle said, “friends of the constitution” have the right to exaggerate their hunches of danger. If these hunches however were no exaggeration, the establishment of such a committee may already be too late.

This article was translated from German by Sara Forsstrom


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