5 December 2005
Condoleezza Rice and Count Metternich
By Gwynne Dyer
“Metternich comes close to being a statesman; he lies very well,” Napoleon once said of the Austrian aristocrat who dominated European diplomacy for a generation. By that demanding standard, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not come close at all.
Her four-country European tour was originally intended to rebuild US-European relations that have been badly damaged by the Iraq war, and especially to welcome a new German government whose leader, Chancellor
Angela Merkel, wanted to kiss and make up with the Bush administration. But then came the furore about the alleged torture of terrorism suspects and the revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency used the airports of
America’s European allies for the “rendition” of those suspects to places where the torture could be done more conveniently.
Rice’s failure to lie convincingly about the torture accusations –the US, she said, “does not tolerate, permit or condone torture under any circumstances” — was not all her fault, for she is continually undermined by other parts of the administration. Vice-President Dick Cheney publicly insists that the CIA be exempt from the ban on “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of prisoners, and the CIA goes on using such techniques as “waterboarding” (strapping a prisoner to a board and immersing his head until he believes he is drowning) even while the State Department condemns other governments that use the same technique.
Since almost all of this activity takes place beyond the borders of the United States, there is not much that its opponents can do about it through the American justice system. Moreover, the CIA and the US military usually outsource the more extreme forms of torture to other governments (the Abu Ghraib abuses were an aberration) in order to evade direct legal responsibility. But that does involve flying detained suspects around the world in planes owned or chartered by the CIA, and the flight logs of these aircraft show that they have landed hundreds of times in European Union countries — which may legally implicate those countries as accomplices to torture.
The flights were presumably carrying Muslim detainees between the US-run prison camps in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, other secret CIA camps that allegedly existed in Poland, Romania and the Indian Ocean island of
Diego Garcia, and places like Egypt and Syria in the case of those destined for major torture or death. Thousands of detainees may have been carried on these “ghost flights” over the past four years, and Lawrence Wilkerson, a former US army colonel who served as chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002 until early this year, told the BBC last week that between 70 and 90 prisoners have died in “questionable circumstances.”
As the revelations about secret CIA prisons in Europe and CIA shuttle flights through EU countries grew — at least 210 stops in Britain, 50 in Ireland and 437 in Germany — EU political leaders were forced to demand explanations from the United States. For two weeks Condoleezza Rice denied US wrongdoing but mostly said nothing, which was certainly the best strategy in the circumstances. The European governments could satisfy their own public opinion by loudly demanding answers, and the US saved everybody embarrassment by not giving any. But then Rice lost her patience and told the truth.
Speaking in Washington just before she left for Europe, she defended the renditions as a necessary part of the US “war on terror.” She made it absolutely clear that the US government had the knowing cooperation of the relevant EU governments, or at least of their intelligence services, in these shuttle flights. It must have felt very satisfying, but she will regret saying it before the end.
What she said was completely true, of course. You can’t have all those flights going through the airports of sovereign states without the knowledge and permission of the host governments, even if they choose not to inquire too closely into what the planes are carrying. By highlighting their complicity in the renditions, Rice made it very likely that there will now be judicial or parliamentary inquiries in these countries to probe the extent to which their governments knew — or chose not to know — what was going on.
The uproar will probably be greatest in Germany, where the former socialist government led by Gerhard Schroeder had publicly broken with the Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq. It’s not all that surprising that it tried to repair some of the damage by turning a blind eye to the ghost flights, but the manifest hypocrisy of its behaviour will create huge pressure in Berlin to uncover the truth, and it may yet break Angela Merkel’s brand new “grand coalition” government.
There will be public inquiries in other countries, too, and a constant flow of new information about the illegality and cruelty of the American gulag that will undermine the already failing authority of the Bush administration. By telling the truth and insisting that European governments share the blame for the policy, Condoleezza Rice has opened a can of worms that her colleagues at home would have preferred to keep shut.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The flights…circumstances”)