U.S. jeopardizes global terror probes

By Geraldine Sealey

Published May 4, 2004 3:42PM (EDT)

Spanish investigators say they may be forced to release more than a dozen men charged with aiding the Sept. 11 attacks because of a breakdown in international cooperation in fighting terrorism. Guess who's the least cooperative with the Spanish prosecutors? That's right, U.S. authorities. The Wall Street Journal (Sub. only) has an interesting piece showing how Spain's 10-year pursuit of al-Qaida cells there is being compromised and jeopardized by the American authorities' failure to turn over information needed to prosecute.

Here's an excerpt from the Journal: "A breakdown in international cooperation on fighting terrorism threatens to further undermine years of investigation into radical Islamist cells in Europe, with Spanish investigators saying they may be forced to release more than a dozen men charged with aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

"In the months after the attacks in the U.S., Spanish police rounded up more than a dozen suspected terrorists in Madrid with ties to al Qaeda operatives around the world. Last autumn they were indicted, along with al Qaeda terrorist group leader Osama bin Laden, on thousands of counts of murder for allegedly helping provide logistics to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks. The investigating magistrate handling the case, Baltasar Garzon, previously prosecuted former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet and terrorism by Basque separatists in Spain."

"Now people close to the prosecution say that after nearly 10 years of investigation into these cells, starting well before the Sept. 11 attacks, the case is in danger of falling apart. The reason: a lack of international cooperation, especially with U.S. authorities engaged in their own fight against terrorism."

"The obstacle, Spanish investigators say, is a question that also has come before the Sept. 11 Commission in Washington: Does the ultimate responsibility for fighting terrorism belong to law-enforcement officials or to the military?"

"Spanish authorities, like their counterparts in other European countries, see courtrooms as the primary antiterrorism venue; the Basque group ETA, as well as European groups like the Red Brigades and Baader Meinhof, were largely defeated by detective work and prosecutors. But American authorities, say Spanish and other European investigators, favor military operations with military intelligence. Information gleaned from interrogations isn't often made available for European courtrooms, and is even kept from civilian U.S. terrorism investigators."

"'From the U.S. point of view, everything is an intelligence affair, not a judicial matter,' says a Spanish official close to the investigation. 'That is what is undermining the whole process.' Finding a way to balance intelligence and law-enforcement needs is one of the biggest challenges in the fight against terrorism, says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Courts need to address ways to handle testimony by intelligence officials, introduce wiretaps and use information taken from military interrogations."

"Without that, cases are foundering. At stake is more than the fate of the Spanish suspects linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. A new generation of Islamist radicals have expanded their concept of jihad, or holy war, to target not just U.S. interests or Middle Eastern governments, but most of the world. Since the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Western Europe has become a battlefront as well. But doctrinal differences between the U.S. and Europe have investigators at loggerheads.Those differences led to the release and pending retrial last month in Germany of the only person so far convicted in connection with Sept. 11: Mounir el-Motassadeq."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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