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The El-Masri Cable

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From the small mountain of diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks is now slowly putting up at their website, one significant historical document has so far gotten only scant mention. It’s dated February 6, 2007 and directed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It reflects a meeting between John M. Koenig, the senior career diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, and Rolf Nikel, the deputy national security advisor for Germany. The subject was the criminal investigation into the kidnapping and torture of Khaled El-Masri, a German greengrocer from the town of Neu-Ulm, seized in a case of mistaken identity. Koenig, aware that German prosecutors had issued arrest warrants against thirteen U.S. government agents who were involved in El-Masri’s abduction and torture, and that an effort would shortly be made to enforce them internationally, was pressing the German government to block this effort. It would have a “negative impact on our bilateral relationship,” he apparently told Nikel. While Koenig mouthed formulas about respect for the “independence” of the German criminal justice system, he noted that there was also a “political” element—unlike their colleagues in Italy and Spain, German prosecutors are subject to direction by the government on a political basis. Though this cable is framed in typically diplomatic politesse, the underlying message seems clear: it was a demand that Chancellor Merkel’s government intervene to block the criminal investigation, coupled with a threat of negative consequences if it failed to do so.

Over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday in 2003, Khaled El-Masri traveled by bus to Skopje, Macedonia. There he was apprehended by border guards who noted the similarity of his name to that of Khalid al-Masri, an Al Qaeda agent linked to the Hamburg cell where the 9/11 attacks were plotted. Despite El-Masri’s protests that he was not al-Masri, he was beaten, stripped naked, shot full of drugs, given an enema and a diaper, and flown first to Baghdad and then to the notorious “salt pit,” the CIA’s secret interrogation facility in Afghanistan. At the salt pit, he was repeatedly beaten, drugged, and subjected to a strange food regime that he supposed was part of an experiment that his captors were performing on him. Throughout this time, El-Masri insisted that he had been falsely imprisoned, and the CIA slowly established that he was who he claimed to be. Over many further weeks of bickering over what to do, a number of CIA figures apparently argued that, though innocent, the best course was to continue to hold him incommunicado because he “knew too much.” Dana Priest furnished the core of this account in an excellent 2005 Washington Post story. Other aspects have been slowly confirmed by German criminal investigators. By studying El-Masri’s hair and skin samples, for instance, they were able to confirm allegations that he was drugged and subjected to a bizarre starvation regimen. Throughout this process, El-Masri’s account of what transpired, part of which he wrote up as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, has consistently been vindicated.

The El-Masri cable suggests that the Embassy in Berlin was trying to protect thirteen CIA agents then subject to an arrest warrant. These agents’ true names are now known, and an arrest warrant continues to hang over them–now issued by Spanish prosecutors after American diplomatic pressure effectively chilled the German investigation. But the most noteworthy thing about this cable is the addressee—Condoleezza Rice. Might she and her legal advisor, John Bellinger, have had an interest in the El-Masri case that went beyond their purely professional interest in U.S.-German diplomatic relations? The decision to “snatch” El-Masri and lock him up in the “salt pit” involved the extraordinary renditions program, and it seems as a matter of routine that this would have required not only the approval of the CIA’s top echelon but also the White House-based National Security Council. It’s highly likely that Rice and Bellinger would have been involved in the decision to “snatch” and imprison El-Masri. If authority was given by Rice, then responsibility for the mistake—which might well include criminal law accountability—may also rest with her, and this fact would also not have escaped Koenig as he performed his diplomatic duties.

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