TCS Daily

Europe's Torture Logic

By T.K. Vogel - January 25, 2006 12:00 AM

On September 13, 2001, Le Monde -- that unassailable bastion of Frenchness -- ran the headline "We're All Americans." (Le Monde is an afternoon paper whose editions carry the following day's date; the attack on the United States happened too late to make it into the issue of 9/12.) Ever since that high point of transatlantic solidarity, European leaders have been trying to define a specifically European answer to the challenge of terrorism -- a challenge many of them seemed to rank below what they saw as the challenge of enhanced U.S. power.

On occasion, even some of America's best friends on the continent failed to grasp the momentous change 9/11 had brought. As steadfast an ally as the Netherlands is currently debating the wisdom of sending troops into the badlands of southern Afghanistan as part of a NATO deployment aimed to relieve withdrawing U.S. forces; parliamentary approval next month is in serious doubt. The entire Afghanistan mission, despite being the least controversial part of America's war on terror, has become one big pick-and-choose for the allies, with many countries attaching caveats to their missions that make operational planning exceedingly cumbersome.

But the European estrangement is not all due to the prickliness of self-content, inward-looking "old Europe" or to the machinations of a European Left concerned more with checking U.S. power than defeating al-Qaeda. It also emerged as a reaction to the Bush administration's refusal to acknowledge that many of its policies -- indefinite detention on Guantanamo and elsewhere; "extraordinary rendition," often to places where suspects are tortured; and tough interrogation techniques -- raised valid moral questions.

Many Europeans, especially in the media, strike a moral pose mainly to bash Bush. But utilitarian reasoning lurks beyond the well-rehearsed moral arguments. As Swiss politician Dick Marty points out, current U.S. practices hand al-Qaeda a perfect tool for propaganda and recruitment; they have also alienated many who are in principle sympathetic to the American firmness on terror. (Marty has been investigating CIA flights through European airspace and the issue of extraordinary rendition on behalf of the Council of Europe, a human-rights watchdog.)

European questioning of U.S. practices is a necessary corrective to the Bush administration's seemingly cavalier attitude towards human rights. But now, asking tough questions has become that much tougher as the loudest protesters against the war on terror have been found to be implicated in it. In mid-December, the German interior minister was forced to admit that his agents had interrogated a German-born Turkish terror suspect on Guantanamo and a German citizen of Syrian origin at the dreaded military intelligence headquarters in Damascus. The German government kept telling the families of the two men that it had no information about their whereabouts.

Now here's a recipe to undermine anyone's moral standing: interview one of your own citizens in a Syrian torture chamber.

Barely a month later, an unnamed "high-ranking" source in the Pentagon told German TV that German agents had helped select bombing targets in Baghdad. The claim, from a single source with a clear agenda, is not particularly credible -- credible enough, however, for a German parliamentary committee to look into the matter. (The Germans are saying the pair only helped in selecting "non-targets" such as schools and hospitals.) Any further investigation could get uncomfortably close to Germany's new foreign minister. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff he coordinated the country's intelligence services at the time the alleged shenanigans took place.

Also in mid-January, Marty told Swiss media that the Europeans had been "shockingly passive" even though they had known for "two, three years" what the U.S. was up to on their soil: illegal abductions, transfers to third countries where they would almost certainly be tortured, and possibly secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. The European Parliament, an EU body not linked to the Council of Europe, has now set up its own commission to look into the matter, which will keep the murky issue of European collusion with the CIA in the headlines.

These have been dominated in recent days by Marty's preliminary findings, which he summarized in an interim report made public on Tuesday (January 24). Marty reiterated his accusation, which for all intents and purposes has been proven already, that the United States is "outsourcing torture." But the report itself contains very little that wasn't known before: it is in large part a review of previous press coverage. For example, his widely reported conclusion that rendition "affecting Europe" (presumably meaning from or through Europe) "seems to have concerned more than a hundred persons in recent years" is supported with a single reference, to an interview with a former CIA official involved in developing the practice of rendition during the Clinton administration published in the German weekly Die Zeit on December 29. To be fair, Marty had limited authority to compel disclosure, and it is in the nature of secret intelligence gathering that things are kept, well, secret.

The U.S. government might now be tempted to take either of two approaches. The first would be to dismiss Marty's thinly sourced report and to insist that nothing untoward has happened. The second would be to take his conclusions at face value but concentrate not on U.S. wrongdoing but the collusion and hypocrisy of "Old Europe" that has now been exposed.

They should resist the temptation. Perhaps we will indeed see less grandstanding from Berlin and other capitals in the future. But if the Europeans are no longer in a position to ask the hard questions the administration doesn't want to hear, that's bad news for everyone. Showing that your critics are in fact complicit in the actions they're criticizing may be an effective way to shut them up, but it is hardly a remedy for the injustice that has been done. It will only reinforce the Bush administration's natural tendency to dig in. And as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so memorably put it, if you're in a hole, stop digging.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.


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