Reports of secret CIA prisons in Europe and clandestine CIA flights are forcing reluctant European officials to begin asking Americans questions more forcefully than they initially wanted to.
Pressure to find out about secret CIA flights in Europe is growing
At first it was a muted response. Friso Roscam Abbing, spokesman for justice and security affairs for the European Commission, said that the body did "not see any reason now to ask for further clarification at this point in time" regarding the existence of secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe after word leaked out in early November.
But European politicians, wary of another rift with the US only a few years after disagreements over the Iraq war led to postwar lows in the transatlantic relationship, couldn’t stop the grumbling of the public, the media or the independent Council of Europe, which decided to open an investigation.
Then events hit even closer to home: six European countries, including Sweden and Spain, have opened investigations into whether the CIA used their airspace and airports for secret flights to transport suspected terrorists. Germany alone, according to news reports, can count as many as 80 flights, including instances where officials believe suspects may have been interrogated or tortured.
But on Wednesday, the incoming head of the German intelligence service said it still had no proof that airports in Germany were used by the CIA to transport terror suspects to secret prisons.
"We have no proof, no facts. There are only rumors," Ernst Uhrlau told Die Zeit weekly, according to an advance excerpt.
Foreign affairs headache
Trying to balance improving relations with clarification
Still, the issue has given new German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier his first headache. In Washington on Tuesday, he had to balance pressure by German officials for clarification over the issue while also trying to fulfill new German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wish for warmer relations.
"What we have read is in fact grounds for concern," Steinmeier said in an interview with the weekly Bild am Sonntag published Sunday. But he trod lightly in Washington and declined to reveal the details of what he and US officials discussed.
Regardless, momentum for answers is building, with some German officials like their European counterparts elsewhere saying "finally."
"It took almost a month for EU countries to wake up and begin questioning what has been in the papers and in the minds of the public for weeks," said one German official involved in foreign relations. "But people didn’t want to antagonize the Americans. Now it looks like we might have to."
European lawmakers are to renew calls on Thursday for a formal EU investigation into the allegations.
Prisons most likely in Poland, Romania
It began in early November after The Washington Post reported the existence of secret CIA prisons in eight European and Asian countries, which housed suspected terrorists. Although the Post didn’t identify the countries, a Washington, DC-based NGO, Human Rights Watch, said that evidence points to Poland and Romania as the likeliest European locations of the prisons. Both countries have pointedly denied the allegation.
Frattini promises consequences for countries allowing prisons on their soil
This could have serious consequences for any country found to have allowed such prisons. European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini issued his strongest worded warning this week by threatening sanctions on any EU state that has the jails because it would violate EU human rights accords. Non-EU members such as Romania, which hopes to join in 2007, could come under pressure to demonstrate their accordance with EU standards.
"Should the accusations be accurate, I would be forced to draw serious consequences," Frattini said, speaking to reporters at a security conference in Berlin this week. He added that this could include the suspension of the voting rights in the Council of Ministers, the body which groups the 25 EU heads of government. No member has ever had their voting rights suspended.
In addition to a formal inquiry sent to the US by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on behalf of the EU, the Council of Europe has sent a mandatory questionnaire to its 46 members, asking about such detentions from 2002.
A spokesman for the Council said that the investigation is not solely limited to the secret prisons but into any illegal detention of US prisoners in Europe.
Meanwhile, the issue has threatened a rift between European countries as well with some questioning how well some of their neighbors adhere to the conventions they have promised to uphold as members of the Council of Europe and the EU.
US maintains silence so far
EU officials say that although they have solicited answers in the past week regarding the prisons and flights, they haven’t received any word from Washington that the allegations are untrue.
Instead, American officials have continued to maintain that that the US will continue to do what it thinks necessary to fight the war on terrorism even as they have admitted to feeling under pressure to offer up some clarification.
Experts say that is likely to lead to a strain on transatlantic relations.
"Our governments are puzzled," said Henning Riecke, an expert on transatlantic relations and security policy at German Council on Foreign Relations. "It is a dangerous challenge to the values we try to defend in our war on terror such as the rule of law. We see Guantanamo and other prisons and see that it is easy for the prime defender of these values, the US, to forget about them. And then we have to ask, what behavior can we expect in the future?"
He added that Europeans have looked the other way as Americans transport suspects to nations that use interrogations methods illegal in the US and Europe. But now, the fact that this might be happening in Europe is making people nervous.
"People are asking, 'how can it be that human rights activists are placing responsibility for such conduct on Germany, too,'" he said. "We need clarification as to whether our governments knew or not."
Is cooperation on security threatened?
It also might lead to a slowing of cooperation between the US and its European allies on security concerns and intelligence sharing, experts said. Such political and security cooperation increased in the past year, particularly over the Iran weapons issue.
Europeans officials feel broadsided by the issue, security experts say. "There is still interest in ongoing cooperation but only if the suspicion is eliminated that the CIA has betrayed its European partners," said Riecke. "Most want to wait until they have a clear picture of what the consequences of cooperation are. That should not include making an arrest and then turning over the suspect to be tortured."