German Lawmakers Fault Abduction Probe
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
BERLIN -- More than two years after a German citizen reported being kidnapped in the Balkans by the CIA, several lawmakers here are criticizing prosecutors for not conducting a more aggressive investigation into the bungled counterterrorism operation.
Last month, prosecutors in Munich disclosed that they had obtained a list of about 20 CIA operatives suspected in the abduction of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was forcibly taken to Afghanistan in early 2004 and interrogated for four months in a covert prison.
Despite the apparent break in the probe, prosecutors said they were not close to issuing arrest warrants or indictments. They complained of a lack of cooperation from the U.S. government.
Although many of the names appear to be aliases, a German television network identified and tracked down three people allegedly involved in the case, prompting legislators and other critics of U.S. counterterrorism tactics in Europe to question whether German prosecutors are reluctant to dig too deeply into a case involving American spies.
"If the suspects came from other countries, everything would proceed much quicker," said Hans-Christian Stroebele, a member of a German parliamentary committee that is conducting a separate inquiry into what role the German government may have played in the abduction. Prosecutors, he added, should "clear up this case forcefully and with all means." He said an investigation "has to use official channels but follow unconventional ways as well."
The German criminal investigation into the alleged CIA operation stands in contrast to a similar case in Milan, where prosecutors have issued international arrest warrants for 26 American agents charged with kidnapping a radical Islamic cleric and taking him to Cairo in early 2003.
Authorities in both Italy and Germany acknowledged that it was implausible that the U.S. government would ever hand over CIA operatives for trial or that arrests were likely. But Italian prosecutors have pushed ahead regardless, preparing to try the defendants in absentia.
August Stern, a chief public prosecutor in Munich whose office is leading the Masri investigation, said his staff has been hampered by a lack of cooperation from both the U.S. and German governments. The U.S. government has dodged official legal queries, he said, while the German government has kept other material under the protective seal of classification. "We are doing everything in our power," he said.
Stern said his office recently received the list of about 20 CIA operatives from Spanish judicial authorities, who assembled it from the flight manifest of an airplane that investigators believe was used in the kidnapping.
Aviation records show that the plane, a Boeing 737 registered to a suspected CIA front company, left the Spanish island of Mallorca on Jan. 23, 2004, and arrived a few hours later in Skopje, Macedonia, where Masri said he had been held for a few weeks by Macedonian and U.S. agents. The next morning, the plane left for Kabul, Afghanistan, with a brief stopover in Baghdad, according to the records.
The passengers on board are believed to have used fake passports. But Spanish investigators obtained photographs of several who checked into hotels in Mallorca before they left Spain.
Some of the spies were sloppy in other ways in concealing their trails. According to the German television network ARD, one pilot used his hotel phone to call his father in the United States; others used false last names but kept their real first ones and barely altered their birthdates on their passports. The CIA declined to comment for this report.