Thug Life CIA

The New York Times piece follows this rather unflattering article in yesterday’s Washington Post about the Mohammed Zammar case. Note the contrast drawn in the first two paragraphs:

The decision by Munich prosecutors to press charges against CIA counterterrorism operatives for kidnapping a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, won widespread applause last week from German politicians and the public. "The great ally is not allowed to simply send its thugs out into Europe’s streets," lectured the Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

But there has been an awkward silence and no prosecutions in the parallel case of another German citizen, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who was also covertly abducted in a CIA-sponsored mission after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The difference: German agents were directly involved in the Zammar case, providing crucial information to the CIA about his travels and making a secret trip to Syria to interrogate him after he landed in prison there.

13 thoughts on “Thug Life CIA

  1. Another difference: el-Masri is an innocent citizen who was apprehended on grounds of a name mix-up; Zammar is a dangerous terrorist.

    Details, details … 😉


  2. Seems a bit…preening, doesn’t it? I mean, the US is never going to give up agents it ordered to do these things; what good is this other than giving some moralistic showmanship for cameras? You can’t even argue it will change American policies to stop it later with some moral campaign because they quietly dropped most extradition -except in cases of known terrorists who would would certainly be let free- several years ago when the Italians brought it up under Prodi’s prodding. This is the sad face of Continental puritanical attitudes. You also can’t argue the point is European complicity, as any reading of actual European press can attest. And I shouldn’t even begin to point out the many hypocrisies of the European political classes.

    Ugh. Things are far too predictable sometimes.


  3. @Sebastian:

    If he is a ‘dangerous terrorist’, why hasn’t he been convicted by a regular German court on the basis of German law? He must be guilty because we wouldn’t imprison the innocents so who needs judges anyway?

    The little “details” at stake here are the rule of law.

    Thinking that one can throw people into prisons, torture prisons even, because of “hey, come on, we knows he’s guilty” is exactly what produces cases like el-Masri in the short run. In the long run, it erodes the status of the constitutional state and produces governments that let the opposition “disappear” with the applause of the mob that got used to the fact that the “dangerous” guys don’t deserve fancy criminal proceedings.


  4. Ben: exactly. Either we are a state under the rules of law or we are not. So both cases are unconstitutional. The only difference is that in the el-Masri case the US violated German sovereign right because they seemingly (obviously?) operated without German government consent, which cannot be claimed in the Zammar case because of the involvement of the German secret service.


  5. To my mind, the question here is whether allowing the CIA to kidnap legal residents or citizens of Germany and take them to third countries or secret torture jails is (a) always justifiable; (b) never justifiable; or (c) sometimes justifiable, if there is strong evidence that the suspect poses a severe threat. That is, it’s OK if he’s a “dangerous terrorist”?

    Almost all statements from German politicians, and almost all media reports I’ve read, are implicitly or explicity based on premise (b). It is never justifiable, because Germany is a Rechtsstaat, etc. etc. To put the question another way, the CIA agents who abducted Zammar were also “thugs”, weren’t they? Under premise (b), it’s clear they were. German government agencies, on the other hand, seem to be operating on a premise much closer to (c). Why not just admit it?


  6. Well, exactly WHO do you want to admit exacly WHAT? I for sure am willing to admit that I very much *believe* that the German government is *probably* involved in extra-legal activities. I don’t know the details of the Zammar case but from the Kurnaz case (where the liberal press certainly cannot be accused of “awkward silence”) I guess that the government on the other hand will argue that the Zammar affair and the el-Masri affair are different in some important details and thus can’t be compared. Here, “details” means of course legally relevant facts and not “this is a good guy and that is a bad guy”.

    I would be happy to see some ministers and secret service agents before the court where they could explain all their arguments to a judge. But I’m not so naive to think that will happen.


  7. Come what may, there won’t be “rule of law” treatment for presumed terrorists (=innocent citizens having provoked the assumption of their involvement in terrorist acts simply by their origin or their looks), and we’re all in it together. It has been rightly said that in the “war on terror” Germany isn’t the guardian of the rule of law some officials apparently still try to sell it for. These claims are hypocrite to the core. There’s secret complicity and subjugation on all levels and to uncover the real extent of that would be a great journalistic achievement. What frightens me about the cases cited is that we don’t get to know what else the West’s secret services have been or are currently doing around the world in the name of freedom. The “rule of law” has for long been their first victim.

    While it’s nice for people to discuss whose country’s infringements are more hypocrite or more straightforward, I would honestly like to see some accountability (for all countries involved). Have we ever heard some sort of statement like “yes, our government is constantly breaking our own laws and standards, but we think it is necessary?”


  8. Andrew: IMHO b) applies – it’s never justifiable.
    As to the legal charges: The question is what exactly the accusation is. I don’t know this, but if it’s that CIA agents have violated German sovereign rights it’s clear why these charges would not be pressed in the Zammar case (because the German sovereign was involved). That makes the affair not less scandalous, though — on the contrary!


  9. @Alex:

    Either we are a state under the rules of law or we are not. So both cases are unconstitutional. The only difference is that in the el-Masri case the US violated German sovereign right because they seemingly (obviously?) operated without German government consent

    No, that is not the only difference. As I wrote, Zammar is an actual terrorist while el-Masri was arrested due to a confusion of names. Just because you think that should not make a legal difference doesn’t mean it isn’t a real difference. And it is one which the Washington Post might have wanted to, you know, mention.

    By claiming, as the Post seems to do, that the cases are ceteris paribus, it clearly implies that the involvement of German government officials must be the reason papers such as the Süddeutsche give the cases a different treatment. But that claim is wrong. (Of course, to anyone who’s been following the German press in recent weeks, the idea that the Süddeutsche would want to spare the German officials of the time is completely ridiculous.) What we’re talking about here is not a court of law, it’s the press.

    which cannot be claimed in the Zammar case because of the involvement of the German secret service.

    Firstly, the BKA is not a “secret service”. Secondly, the German involvement constisted of two parts:

    a) Informing the US about Zammar’s whereabouts, thus facilitating his arrest. Obviously this constitutes no “consent” whatsoever to sending Zammar to Syria and having him tortured there.

    b) Questioning him while he was in Syrian custody. While this is hardly the behaviour I would expect from a government that takes a clear stance against the whole Syria rendition thing, it doesn’t necessarily constitute consent either.

    In summary: It is clearly possible that the US acted without German consent. (In any event it’s obvious that US didn’t give a damn about whether or not the Germans consented or not.)


  10. Sorry for consufing the BKA and the secret service.
    But as Ben said: a kidnapping is a kidnapping, even if it should turn out in the end that that kidnapped is a criminal — which cannot be clear before the suspect is convicted in a trial. So if the BKA thought the suspect was a criminal and dangerous, then they should have arrested him and given him a trial, and not inform the CIA about his whereabouts (and let him being kidnapped and tortured in Syria). The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of the Rechtsstaat. Therefore it doesn’t make a real difference IMO whether the suspect turned out to be guilty in the end or not — before he’s convicted he has to be presumed innocent.


  11. @Alex:

    The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of the Rechtsstaat. Therefore it doesn’t make a real difference IMO whether the suspect turned out to be guilty in the end or not — before he’s convicted he has to be presumed innocent.

    Still, one was arrested due to a confusion about his name. The other got in trouble due to rather damning evidence. Presumption of innocence means that newspapers will use the term “mutmaßlicher Terrorist” for Zammar instead of simply “Terrorist”, while of course el-Masri would be called “vollkommen unschuldiges, nichtsahnendes Opfer”. Oops, I think we just found out something important: “Accused but for formal reasons presumed innocent for the time being” is still something entirely different than “obviously completely innocent and just arrested because of a freaking mix-up of names, for Chrissakes!” Perhaps not in a legal sense, but in the press, it is.

    Now, one might hope that both el-Masri’s case and Zammar’s case would receive the same extent and type of press coverage, because the injustice done to them is roughly the same, and it should not matter that one is a presumed terrorist and the other isn’t. (In fact, it shouldn’t even matter if he was a convicted terrorist, so I’m not certain why you even bring up the whole presumption of innocence thing – hopefully you aren’t implying it’s okay to ship lawfully convicted terrorists off to Syria and have them tortured there.) But in reality it is quite likely that it’ll make a difference, because from a human point of view they’re quite different stories. Newspaper editors know that and will therefore treat the stories differently.

    Or maybe I’m wrong and the reason the cases received different coverage really is the German involvement. I guess everyone can to make up their own mind about that. Everyone except the readers of the Washington Post, of course, because they aren’t told that there is any difference between these cases except, well, the involvement of German officials.


  12. @Sebastian

    I’m relieved we agree on how the Zammar case *should* be handled by press and legal authorities. Maybe you should have point your point more clear in your first comment.

    If Zammar really would be a terrorist suspect in my book is another case, I can’t take a stance here without knowing in detail who said what. If the so-called war against terror teaches us anything then no matter how untrue your claims are you will get away with them if you repeat them often enough. Maybe even SZ journalists call him a suspect but before the Iraq war people there probably also pondered if Saddam’s nonexisting nukes could reach Munich or only Tel Aviv. I know the ZEIT did. That doesn’t mean that I believe that he’s NOT a terrorist. Only that criminal proceedings are important to judge how solid the solid evidence really is.

    In any case, I must disagree with you about the reasons for the unequal press coverage. It’s simply that the media is full of feedback loops and a Zammar THERE doesn’t provide enough of an initial kick to bring the media circus into a state of selfsustained rotation, compared to an el-Masri and a Kurnaz HERE. Their cases too got full attention only after their return; before the media coverage was quite sparse. And the German government tried their part to keep the affair under cover in all three cases.


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