This much is uncontroversial: in late 2003 the CIA kidnapped Khalid al-Masri, a Lebanese-born German citizen, and carried him off to a prison in Afghanistan for interrogation. In the end they released him when they realised that his only crime was to have the same name as some other man they wanted to get their hands on. It took them five months to realise this, five months during which al-Masri says he was tortured. He must be lying about that part, though, because George Bush has said that his administration does not torture.
Now, however, it looks like an extra-large family-size jar of controversy is about to be opened. Otto Schily, who was at the time Germany’s Innenminister — in this context, an analogue to the British home secretary or American director of homeland security — knew about the matter in May 2004 because then-US ambassador Daniel Coats told him. That’s not the controversial part. This is: according to a report in this week’s Spiegel, Schily kept quiet about the Americans kidnapping and falsely imprisoning a German citizen because Coats, his good friend, asked him to.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, these revelations could not come at a worse time for the German government. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel would love to rekindle some of the old warmth that has gone out of the US-German relationship since Bush began his war. That might prove harder than she’d like, though, given recent revelations that CIA torture flights have crossed EU airspace and even used EU airbases (according to the Spiegel, over 400 such flights in Germany alone). The al-Masri matter only adds to her difficulty.
On the larger matter of the torture flights and the possibility of US gulags on EU territory, Chancellor Merkel has thus far meekly stated that she trusts the US government will offer an adequate explanation. And I’ve no doubt they will. When Bush’s White House perceived that the Republican party would reap domestic electoral advantage if the US invaded Iraq, it discovered that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, that he had ties to al-Qaida, that he had weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq represented a real threat to the USA. Perceiving now that its war on Iraq is likely to impose domestic electoral costs on Republicans, the White House has suddenly discovered that Iraqi security forces are ready to stand on their own so that US troops can be stood down (which is very, very different to the cutting-and-running suggested by Democrat cowards like John Murtha). So I have no doubt whatever that Secretary of State Rice will look into the cameras with a straight face and blandly assert that the US is not using EU airspace to fly detainees to be tortured in gulags, that there are no gulags and what the US is doing in them isn’t torture, and that, in any event, the detainees being tortured in the gulags are all Bad People.
It would make Merkel’s life significantly easier if she could take Rice’s assertions at face value. That may be difficult, though. Germans of all political stripes are deeply unhappy at the notion the USA is using German territory to do the sort of thing Germans have learned since 1945 can never be countenanced by a state under the rule of law. If America’s Republican government is doing what all indications suggest it is doing, no German government can afford to be its accomplice. The Chancellor would like to improve US-German relations, and she is right to do so. She should bear in mind, though, that a nation, and its government at any given time, are not the same thing. Close and friendly relations with the USA are important for Germany, and for the EU as a whole. But getting closer and friendlier might not be possible, and might not be appropriate, until 2006 or 2008.