TCS Daily

From Germany With Love

By T.K. Vogel - March 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Germans may soon no longer have to grab a copy of the New York Times if they want to know their country's contribution to the War on Terror and the War in Iraq. It was the Times which broke the story, over a year ago, of the arrest in Macedonia of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese background, and his subsequent ordeal in CIA detention in Afghanistan. And it was the Times which provided details, just last week, of the sharing by German spies of actionable intelligence on Iraqi military targets with their U.S. counterparts in the run-up to the war.

Not all of the allegations carry equal weight or credibility. Controversy here as in other European countries has also focused on CIA flights through European airspace presumed to serve the transfer of terror suspects to third countries where they might be tortured. It is in the nature of this program of "extraordinary rendition," whose existence has not been denied by the U.S. government, that even close allies would only have an approximate idea of what's going on. In contrast to el-Masri's story and that of the German agents in Baghdad, the CIA flight story is almost entirely based on conjecture. Just to what extent could now be the focus of a special parliamentary commission.

The grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, in power only since last September's defeat of the previous coalition of SPD and the Greens, has been doing its utmost to keep these issues firmly within the regular parliamentary procedures. But on Monday, the Liberals joined the other two opposition parties (the Greens and the Left Party) in demanding a special commission, whose establishment now looks fairly certain. The parties, however, still need to agree on a mandate for the commission, and it is here that the whole exercise might run into trouble, for the opposition parties are pursuing diametrically opposed goals. The Liberals, the most Atlanticist of Germany's parties, want to retroactively discredit the red-green coalition's anti-war policy by exposing its hypocrisy at the top level. The Greens and the Left Party want to expose the scandal of the German foreign intelligence agency BND working against the orders coming from their political masters — though these orders had conveniently only been communicated orally.

What's interesting in the whole affair is that both main opposition camps seem to believe that the allegations of BND connivance in the Iraq war are essentially true. The Liberals welcome the BND's presumed activities as proof that the cabinet's anti-war policy was unrealistic; the Greens take it as proof that the intelligence services are still moonlighting for the Americans.

Not surprisingly, this is not how the government sees things. It has denied whatever could plausibly be denied (and a few things that couldn't, until they were called on it) and maintained that the regular oversight mechanisms through a standing parliamentary committee had worked fine. After a session of this oversight committee had heard evidence from several BND agents, one of its SPD members said on Monday that there was "nothing" to the allegations and that the meeting had been "very reassuring." There was simply no need for a special commission to investigate, the government said. After it became clear that a special commission was nonetheless in the offing, SPD politicians called it "pure show" and warned that it could threaten Germany's security interests.

Monday's unscheduled meeting of the committee was called following new allegations made in the Times the previous week. But even without the new, slightly adventurous claim that German agents had passed on an Iraqi plan for the defense of Baghdad to the Americans, the facts as they are now on the table are highly embarrassing for the Germans. (The defense plan story seems dodgy since the document reproduced by the Times doesn't look like a particularly credible strategy to defend Baghdad. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called it "undercomplex.")

Here are the plain facts, no longer disputed by the German government: two BND agents were stationed in Baghdad in the run-up to the invasion and its early phases, while another colleague worked as a liaison officer with the U.S. commander of the invasion in Qatar. The intelligence they passed on to their U.S. colleagues was not just of a humanitarian nature, as claimed earlier, but of military relevance. All three later received medals from the Americans in recognition of the "critical information to United States Central Command to support combat operations in Iraq," according to the New York Times, which quoted from a classified German report on the matter. It was this report, prepared for the standing oversight committee, that prompted several of its members to declare that any special commission wouldn't find anything that hadn't been known already — to the select few who could read the report in its entirety.

Whatever the exact information the Germans shared with the Americans, their cooperation seems to have been well within what could reasonably be expected to take place between allies, especially during a war. It was primarily the government's stalling that promoted the issue to such prominence, though the motivation behind the delaying tactics is not difficult to see: the current foreign minister is Steinmeier, who, as the Chancellor's chief of cabinet, coordinated intelligence activities for the Schröder government.

The political wrangling surrounding the German assistance to the war in Iraq, and the constant stream of revelations coming from the media, are now drowning out another facet of Germany's participation in the war on terror that is far more troubling. As part of the global clampdown on terrorism, the CIA has transferred at least two German citizens to third countries (el-Masri to Afghanistan and Mohammed Zammar, arrested by the Moroccans in late 2001, to Syria) and two long-time German residents are being held at Guantanamo. It gradually transpired over the last few months that all of them, plus terror suspects held by Kurds in Northern Iraq, had been visited and interrogated by German intelligence officers, something the government denies in el-Masri's case but admits in all others. Last December, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble confirmed and defended the fact that his agents had questioned Zammar at a notorious Damascus prison, where Syrian military intelligence torture political detainees.

"If we said that, under any circumstances, we should not use information where we cannot be sure that it was attained under conditions completely in line with the rule of law, then this would be absolutely irresponsible," Schäuble told the media. He also told parliament that "it wasn't in the files" that Zammar had been tortured. This was highly disingenuous, of course. Conditions in the Far' Falastin prison, where Zammar is being held, are so unsavory that according to Time magazine even the CIA stays away. CIA officials submit written questions to the Syrians, who then communicate Zammar's replies back to the Americans. Why the Germans would have been so inept as to interrogate Zammar directly, and inside the prison, is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that the War on Terror has developed into one gigantic exercise in cutting corners. That the German government simply stands by as its citizens are abducted and handed over to nasty regimes that routinely torture their prisoners is bad enough; that German officials would seek to directly benefit from that torture is outrageous. Zammar is no goody-goody: he has admitted to having recruited several high-profile terrorists for al-Qaeda, including people involved in 9/11, and he was under observation by German intelligence at the time he disappeared in Morocco. But that surely doesn't justify standing by as he is brutalized by the Syrians, an untrustworthy, shaky regime that is probably manipulating whatever knowledge Zammar may have had four years ago. (This, incidentally, might be the reason why the Germans wanted to talk to him directly rather than through Syrian intermediaries. Would the CIA be more trusting than the BND?) Zammar's fate, then, is regrettable not just morally or on a human level, but for pragmatic reasons as well. He would quite probably have been far more useful under German surveillance than languishing in a Syrian prison, where he may just die one day. That's the real scandal, and the German public seems slow to grasp it.


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