While much media attention has focused on the gossipy side of Wikileaks revelations, the real significance of the cables releases so far is not the subjective views of various world leaders, nor even the surprising access that US diplomats have at the highest levels of government in Kenya and elsewhere. Rather, the significance is the extent, at least during the Bush Presidency, of how the US placed pressure on other governments, including close allies, to support US policies on the "war against terrorism," even to the extent of influencing judicial processes in other countries.
While we wait for the bulk of the cables to be released by Wikileaks (a little over 5,000 out of 250,000 have been released, a mere two percent), and while experts comb through those already released, one can already see indications of the US using its political, economic, and military power to influence accountability mechanisms in other countries. A number of European countries have asserted jurisdiction over US citizens for alleged violations of their own domestic laws and international law. These assertions involve, among other things, the US practice of extraordinary rendition (the practice of abducting individuals in one country and transporting them secretly to a CIA-run "black site" or to a third country, usually for the purpose of interrogation that includes torture and other cruel treatment), and abuses at the US-controlled interrogation center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In Spain, for example, a suit was brought against US citizens for their alleged participation in the extraordinary rendition of a German national and green grocer, Khaled al-Masri, who, while vacationing in Macedonia was abducted by the CIA and flown to a US facility in Afghanistan with an apparent stopover in Spain. It was the stopover in Spain, and thus the use of Spanish facilities in effecting al-Masri's extraordinary rendition, that gave the Spanish court jurisdiction. Al-Masri was held for four months in a CIA-run facility in Afghanistan, ominously referred to as "the salt pit," and tortured. It was later established that al-Masri was in fact the victim of mistaken identity; he was not the person who the CIA wanted to interrogate. Germany also initiated a criminal investigation into the matter, as it involves the violation of the rights of a German citizen.
In a series of cables it is revealed that the US government attempted to influence, and ultimately halt, these cases. Thus in a cable from the US Embassy in Madrid dated 1 February 2007, the US Ambassador makes clear that he is in close confidential contact with the Spanish prosecutor handling the case, and that the prosecutor has made clear that they would not be requesting any information from the United States Government related to the case. The Ambassador also refers to their efforts to "manage this case at a discreet government-to-government level."
In a cable from the US Embassy in Berlin dated 6 February 2007, and titled "Al-Masri Case: Chancellery Aware of USG Concerns," the US Ambassador discusses efforts by the US Government to have the case in Germany dropped. US government officials, for example, have made clear to German officials that the issuance of any arrest warrants against US citizens "would have a negative impact on our bilateral relationship." In a somewhat Orwellian formulation, the US official noted the intention of this message "was not to threaten Germany, but rather to urge that the German Government weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US." The German official noted that the government would apply political scrutiny to the case; that they would examine the implications of the case on relations with the US; and that the German government would "try to be as constructive as possible" with respect to the case.
The US attempt to influence the al-Masri cases appears not to be an isolated occurrence. In another cable from Madrid dated 25 May 2007 and drafted in preparation for a visit by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Spain, the Ambassador advised the Secretary to raise concerns about a case against three US servicemen "charged with alleged 'war crimes' in the case of the death of Spanish TV cameraman Jose Couse in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in 2003." The Ambassador notes that the Spanish Government has been "helpful" in having the prosecutor appeal the case, and that the Secretary should emphasize that the US wants "continued vigilance and cooperation by the GOS [Government of Spain] until the case is dropped."
While there are of course many ways to interpret these cables, it is clear that the US Government exerted its power to influence and even halt cases brought against US citizens for alleged violations of US, foreign, and international law. It is not clear how successful those efforts were. The US Government actions detailed in these and other cables are not unlike some of the efforts by the Kenyan Government to shield its citizens from accountability either domestically or before the ICC for crimes against humanity. The message should not, however, be that because the US did it, it is okay for the Kenyan Government to do the same. Both efforts are wrong, and are directly contrary to protecting the fundamental rights of all human beings and of holding individuals accountable for violations of those rights.
Ronald C. Slye is a Commission with the Truth, Justice & Reconciliation Commission, and Professor of Law from Seattle University School of Law and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. The views expressed are solely his own and do not reflect that of the Commission.