WASHINGTON – Amid rising European anger over contentions that the CIA has flown terror suspects to secret camps in Eastern Europe for interrogation and possible torture, the European Union’s commissioner of justice and home affairs warned Monday that any EU member found to have permitted the use of such a camp could lose its voting rights.
It was not immediately clear what weight the warning by the commissioner, Franco Frattini, might carry. No member’s voting rights have ever been suspended.
But the highly charged issue appeared to have the potential to slow a warming of U.S.-European relations, and to weigh on trans-Atlantic intelligence cooperation – one area of joint endeavor that has largely survived the polarizing debate over the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
– US defends its record on international law
It could also add to pressure on East European aspirants like Romania, which is set to accede to the EU in 2007, to demonstrate that they fully respect the Union’s human rights standards.
Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington, acknowledged Monday that a possible effect on U.S.-EU intelligence cooperation was “a potential impact.” But he insisted that the United States took the matter “very seriously.”
The State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, when asked about European complaints that the United States had been slow to provide information on the alleged camps, said the administration would do its best “to reply in as forthright a manner as we possibly can.”
An early indicator that the issue might affect U.S.-EU relations will come Tuesday, when the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, arrives here for a visit designed to underscore the desire of Chancellor Angela Merkel to end the antagonism that grew out of German opposition to the Iraq war under her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder.
The European Commission and several European governments are investigating the report of secret camps that appeared in The Washington Post on Nov. 2. The report sparked anger in the United States, adding to a growing debate over the war.
A U.S. Senate bill to bar inhumane treatment of prisoners held by U.S. forces, including the CIA, passed by a 90-to-9 vote, despite White House objections that it would restrict its ability to protect the country from terrorists.
The CIA had no comment Monday. But Frattini said in Berlin that if the reports of secret CIA jails proved true, EU states could face “serious consequences,” including a recommendation of suspension.
Suspension would not come easily, however. It would require first the unanimous backing of other member states for a finding that basic European values had been violated, then a further two-thirds vote of EU heads of state and government to set sanctions, officials in Brussels said.
Still, the controversy may already have affected intelligence cooperation, said Julianne Smith, deputy director for international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.
“The shining star of trans-Atlantic cooperation, despite all the disputes over Iraq, has always been the tremendous, very positive and very fruitful cooperation on terror, law enforcement and intelligence-sharing,” Smith said. “Now this kind of cornerstone of trans-Atlantic cooperation is under attack.”
Smith said she spoke last week in Europe with a number of national-security officials there. Several of them told her, she said, that “until we get to the bottom of this, we are not going to be able to share as much with you as we have.”
The Post, citing unidentified U.S. and foreign officials, said the CIA had been hiding and interrogating Al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe. The report said the compound was a part of a covert CIA system set up since 2001 that at times had included sites in Thailand, Afghanistan and several East European democracies.
The Post said it had been asked not to identify the European countries, but Human Rights Watch later said it had information suggesting that Poland, a recent EU member, and Romania had secret prison sites. It said flight records showed that CIA planes had landed at Szymany Airport in northeastern Poland and at Mihail Kogalniceanu military airport in southern Romania.
Both countries have denied any involvement. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland reiterated the denial Monday, and Frattini said the Romanian interior minister, Vasile Blaga, had done the same.
Other prisoners reportedly have been sent for questioning to intelligence services in Afghanistan, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and other allied countries.
In addition to the European Commission’s investigation, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Spain and Sweden have opened investigations.
The controversy over treatment of prisoners appears to have had a particularly powerful impact in Europe, becoming “one of the most politically volatile issues affecting trans-Atlantic relations,” said Charles Kupchan, director of Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Most Europeans were against the war to begin with, and then adding fuel to the flames has been Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and now the alleged prison camps in EU countries.”
Early this month, President George W. Bush responded to the latest allegations by saying repeatedly that “we do not torture.” He did not address the question of secret camps.
The visit by Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, had been expected to underscore a warming of relations. Instead, as he flew from Germany on Monday, spokesmen for several German parties demanded that he seek full explanations from the United States about the alleged camps, and specifically whether CIA flights had stopped over in Germany.
Smith, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted that Steinmeier would raise the issue with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but do so fairly discreetly to avoid disturbing the new relationship.
The Council of Europe, the Continent’s main watchdog on human rights, opened an inquiry last week into the transit, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists on CIA initiative.
The council’s secretary general, Terry Davies, sent a letter to the body’s 46 member states obliging them to answer a series of questions about potentially illegal detentions since Jan. 1, 2002, and what legal protections exist against such detentions. Countries have until Feb. 21 to provide a “comprehensive” reply.
“We’re taking these allegations very seriously,” said Matjaz Gruden, Davies’s spokesman at the council. “We’re talking about actions that, if found to be true, would go blatantly against the European convention on human rights.”
Frattini’s spokesman, Friso Roscam Abbing, on Monday welcomed the various investigations.
So did a diplomat at the French Foreign Ministry. “If you join the European Union, you join a value community and if you don’t respect the values, you are subject to sanctions,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, in keeping with Foreign Ministry rules. “It’s a strong signal to future members that we will make no exception.”
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Paris.