European investigations into secret CIA flights and interrogation centers go on as mounting evidence showing they existed on European soil continues to be a diplomatic headache.
Spain, Germany and others are investigating "extraordinary rendition" flights
In a statement that generated little public interest on Thursday, the US announced that it would brief European officials about secret intelligence activities such as rendition flights allegedly carried out on European soil.
But within diplomatic circles, the statement by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pledging to brief a European Parliament delegation to Washington this week on clandestine intelligence activities caused a stir.
"It signals that the US is feeling pressure over an issue they thought would die down and hasn't," said one German diplomat familiar with the issue.
European officials pushing harder
European leaders were initially slow to react to allegations of secret flights carrying suspected terrorists landing on their soil after reports of them first leaked in November. Experts say that is because European governments were more informed than they wanted to admit.
Giovanni Claudio Fava says the flights were not "tourist" flights
But since EU Commission officials first downplayed the issue late last year, the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, has continued to investigate. At the same time, countries such as Germany and Italy are probing the issue -- the Bundestag will hold more hearings this week to find out what German officials knew. Most officials say it is unlikely that European governments were kept in the dark.
Meanwhile, an EU parliamentary committee issued a report last month saying that the CIA carried out as many as 1,000 secret flights in the past five years, transporting suspected terrorists to third countries. And parliamentarians took EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to task for failing to probe the issue more aggressively during a parliamentary inquiry last week where he condemned such activities but said he did not have the jurisdiction to demand answers.
"I have no information whatsoever that tells me with certainty that any of the accusations, allegations, rumors, etcetera that have taken place in the last year's time are true," he told parliamentarians.
Deputies shook their heads at such evasive responses.
"I regret profoundly you say that you don't intend to take any leadership role here," one deputy responded. "You are in a way washing your hands of responsibility."
German Khalid al-Masri told EU deputies of his alleged abduction by the CIA
The European Parliament is an elected body and is considered more representative of European public opinion than other EU institutions. And since the public has kept this issue in the forefront, officials such as Italian EU Parliament member Giovanni Claudio Fava, a member of the special inquiry committee, said the EU Parliament will continue to push hard for answers. Already, they have heard testimony from people such as Kuwaiti-born German citizen Khalid al-Masri, who said he was detained by foreign agents in Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003, while on holiday, flown to Afghanistan and tortured.
"Our job is to find out the truth, and if the truth is that there have been illegal CIA flights on our territory we can't remain silent," he told reporters. "These were not tourist flights."
No longer a wall of silence
At first, US officials said little about the issue. But experts in transatlantic relations say that increased European pressure and fears of weakened intelligence cooperation is changing that.
Last week, Gonzales said that "rendition is an activity that is practiced by the United States and other countries."
And John Bellinger, advisor to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, flew to Brussels to meet with EU and NATO officials last week and admitted that there had been secret intelligence flights even as he dismissed the number.
The topic didn't come up during Merkel's US visit last week
"These allegations that there have been thousands of flights with the implication that they all have got detainees on them and worse, detainees bound for mistreatment is simply absurd," he said during a press conference. "There have been, as we have said, very few cases of rendition, the last one about three years ago. Many of these flights that have occurred may be carrying analysts, officials engaged in counter-terrorism cooperation and forensic evidence."
Hurting intelligence cooperation
US officials say that the rumors and furor over the flights are hurting intelligence cooperation.
"This furor over renditions, and the furor over the flights alone, and the suggestion that flights alone are somehow improper or engaged in illegal activity is undermining intelligence cooperation," Bellinger said. "Next time, the US may be reluctant to bring people to Europe or exchange information."
But European willingness to cooperate has also been threatened.
"There is still interest in ongoing cooperation but only if the suspicion is eliminated that the CIA has betrayed its European partners," said Henning Riecke, an expert on transatlantic relations and security policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Regardless, EU parliamentarians will meet with US officials such as US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and Bellinger this week to get more details. But US officials caution that they will not tell EU officials the details of every flight because of security concerns.
"Intelligence activities by their very nature are simply carried out in secret," Bellinger said.