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NSA Spied on German Officials to Help CIA Escape Scrutiny for Torture & Renditions

WikiLeaks has published a list of telephone numbers used by German officials, which were targeted by the National Security Agency to help the CIA avoid scandal over torture and renditions of prisoners in the “War on Terrorism.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and other officials in the Foreign Ministry had communications intercepted a few days after Steinmeier visited the United States on November 29, 2005, to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

A published NSA intercept summarizing Steinmeier’s communication on December 2 states, “He seemed relieved that he had not received any definitive response from the US Secretary of State regarding press reports of CIA flights through Germany to secret prisons in eastern Europe allegedly used for interrogating terrorism suspects. Steinmeier remarked that Washington is placing great hope in his country’s new government.”

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange described the publication of this information as evidence the “NSA has been used to help the CIA kidnap and torture with impunity.”

“For years, the CIA was systematically abducting and torturing people with the tacit complicity of European governments,” Assange noted. “In 2005, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was thrilled that his tactic of asking Condoleezza Rice no hard questions about CIA renditions had worked. The US said nothing that would require him to do anything. And how do we know about it? Because the National Security Agency was gloating to the US senior executive about intercepting this cowardly display. Nobody comes out of this looking good.”

The information is latest in a string of publications revealing NSA spying on foreign government officials in France and Germany.

Over 125 German phone numbers targeted by the NSA have now been published. The information demonstrates how widespread the spying has been on the German chancellor’s administration as well as German politicians and other officials who analysts targeted for intelligence on economic and trade issues.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published US State Embassy cables from Chelsea Manning, which showed the Bush administration in 2007 had pressured German officials not to prosecute CIA officers involved in the rendition and torture of Khaled el-Masri.

Deputy of Chief of US Mission in Germany, John Koenig, insisted the US government was not “threatening Germany but cautioned the German government to “weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US.”

“The USG would likewise have a difficult time in managing domestic political implications if international arrest warrants are issued,” Koenig claimed.

In April 2007, a US Embassy cable was sent expressing concern over whether Germany would seek to extradite CIA officers involved in el-Masri’s rendition. Munich Deputy District Attorney August Stern said a “request for provisional arrest” would not necessarily lead to an extradition request.

…Stern added while the request for provisional arrest would be a prerequisite for any future request for extradition, he could only follow-up with an extradition request provided the US authorities took the suspects in custody. If the US authorities did not arrest the suspects — which he said he did not/not expect they would — he could go no further with the case. “I can only follow up with an extradition request once the suspect has been arrested,” Stern told us…

Egyptian Abu Omar was kidnapped on a street in Milan, Italy, on February 17, 2003. The CIA was involved in this rendition and made a stop at the NATO military base in Ramstein, Germany, before flying him to Cairo, Egypt, where he was tortured and held in detention for fourteen months.

CIA agents were put on trial in absentia in Italy, but in Germany, according to Eberhard Bayer, the prosecutor involved, he was unable to figure out the identities of CIA operatives.

“We really tried everything but in the end we couldn’t find out which CIA agents were in Ramstein,” Bayer told Der Spiegel in 2013. “We knew which plane landed, we had a list of US pilots who fly this plane and even checked credit card payments and hotel bookings around the air base to find out who could have been there on Feb. 17, 2003. Nothing. And Abu Omar unfortunately couldn’t identify any of his kidnappers.”

A report [PDF] from the Open Society Foundations on CIA renditions notes, “By 2005, the United States had reportedly extraordinarily rendered 100 to 150 suspects to foreign countries.”

“[Rice] defended rendition ‘as a vital tool in combating terrorism.’ She did not mention that after September 11, 2001, the rendition program was radically expanded to allow transfers of detainees to foreign governments solely for the purpose of detention and interrogation, including to governments known to employ torture. She did state that “where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.”37 However, CIA Director Porter Goss virtually admitted in congressional testimony that such assurances were of little use, observing that “[W]e have a responsibility of trying to ensure that they are properly treated, and we try and do the best we can to guarantee that. But of course once they’re out of our control, there’s only so much we can do.”

When Steinmeier chose not to ask any further questions, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer had already written a major investigative report, “Outsourcing Torture,” in February 2005. Washington Post reporter Dana Priest had published a huge report on earlier in the month on CIA holding “terrorism suspects” in secret prisons.

There was plenty of reason for Steinmeier to be skeptical of what Rice had told him. On the other hand, German officials were also keenly aware that if they challenged the US government the Bush administration would make them pay by adjusting how closely the two countries cooperated on counter-terrorism and other issues.

*Image created by WikiLeaks for publication of NSA information on surveillance of German foreign ministry.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."