Published — May 24, 2007 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

A casualty in the war on terror

Europe’s relations with U.S. undermined by apparent complicity on CIA prisons


One of the most significant fallouts from the U.S. war on terror has been the strain on America’s historically strong relationship with Europe.

Allegations of secret CIA prisons in Europe and European governments’ complicity with the kidnappings of terror suspects (known as “extraordinary renditions”) have irritated trans-Atlantic relations, stressed the NATO alliance and jeopardized U.S. national security priorities, including maintaining an international coalition in Iraq.

Allegations began to surface about secret CIA prisons in Europe in late 2005, after the Washington Post revealed the existence of “black site” prisons there. By the time the European Parliament released its initial findings about the covert program in June 2006, European public outcry was swift and shrill.

“Bush exposes not only his own previous lies,” said Sarah Ludford, a British member of the European Parliament, “he also exposes to ridicule those arrogant government leaders in Europe who dismissed as unfounded our fears about extraordinary rendition.” In that practice, military or intelligence agents operating outside the normal judicial system seize terrorist suspects and spirit them away for questioning in secret locations, often to countries known to employ torture.

Evidence of covert cooperation between the CIA and European intelligence agencies continued to mount. Revelations about the involvement of Italian intelligence services in the abduction of Egyptian-born cleric Abu Omar off the streets of Milan shook the Italian government and has led to the indictment of half a dozen Italian officers as well as 26 Americans. It also led to a constitutional crisis in Italy, with the government claiming that state secrets should trump the judicial investigation and prevent disclosure of documents that could confirm Italian complicity in the CIA kidnapping.

In Germany, prosecutors issued arrest warrants on January 31, 2007, for more than a dozen Americans in the alleged abduction and rendition of German citizen Khaled al-Masri from Macedonia in early 2004. Al-Masri has sued former CIA director George Tenet and other CIA officials for damages; the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents al-Masri in the suit, is deciding whether to appeal his case to the Supreme Court. The German warrants are based in part on documents provided by the Spanish police, who have been investigating whether CIA-operated aircraft used the Spanish island of Mallorca for years as a stopover to and from the CIA secret prisons.

Governments in Romania and Poland have been facing virulent public criticism because of allegations from both media and human rights groups that the CIA for years maintained secret prisons in each country, outside of any legal jurisdiction, that housed terrorist suspects. Sweden found itself facing criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

In September 2006, President Bush acknowledged the existence of CIA secret prisons and declared publicly that all remaining terrorist suspects had been moved to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But Washington, Bucharest and Warsaw have never addressed whether the two Eastern European countries were hosting the covert facilities.

Government investigations in Europe later criticized European governments for complicity in a CIA program of secret prisons and extraordinary renditions. An investigative committee of the European Parliament created to explore this issue concluded in January 2007 that it was “unlikely that certain European governments were unaware of the extraordinary rendition activities taking place in their territory.”

Not surprisingly, the fallout from this wave of scandals was damaging for trans-Atlantic relations. The 2006 “Transatlantic Trends” survey, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the nonprofit European organization Compagnia di San Paolo, found that “the proportions of Europeans who view U.S. leadership in world affairs as desirable has reversed since 2002, from 64 percent positive to 37 percent this year, and from 31 percent negative to 57 percent.”

Julianne Smith, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that the issue of renditions is “fueling the fire of public sentiment that the United States can’t be trusted.” The renditions controversy, she added, “is having a very negative impact on the relationship just as we were turning the corner on Iraq.”

A poll by the BBC World Service in early 2007 found that most citizens around the world had a more negative view of the United States than ever, with half saying the U.S. was playing a mainly negative role in the world.

Views of the U.S. continue to fall across Europe. In a comparison of surveys taken in 1999-2000 and 2005-2006, polling experts found that favorable views of the United States dropped from 83 percent to 56 percent in the United Kingdom; 78 percent to 37 percent in Germany; 62 percent to 39 percent in France; 62 percent to 12 percent in Turkey; and 50 percent to 23 percent in Spain.

Because of the highly negative views many Europeans now hold, the U.S. has found it difficult to maintain its “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. Even European governments inclined to stick with the United States in Iraq have been forced to respond to the political furor at home and to curtail their deployment of troops. As the U.S. “surges” more troops into Iraq, its coalition partners are dwindling.

Polls in 2005 of European troop-contributing nations found that 57 percent of British subjects felt their country should pull out of Iraq; 60 percent of Italians opposed extending their forces’ deployment; and 59 percent of Polish respondents felt their government should bring all of their troops home as soon as possible.

“Anti-Americanism has this restraining effect on European governments,” said Reginald Dale, a British journalist and senior fellow at CSIS, in explaining the impact of the Italian and German indictments of Americans. “Even if they are naturally inclined towards the United States, [they] have to be careful in public.”

Spain was one of the first to recall its troops, after the train bombings in Madrid in early 2004 helped bring to power a left-leaning, more anti-American government. Portuguese troops were home by February 2005, followed shortly by troops from the Netherlands and Hungary, and then Norway and Ukraine later that same year.

After Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost to left-leaning Romano Prodi in the spring of 2006, Italy withdrew its large contingent of troops before the end of the year. In early 2007 the United Kingdom, the largest troop contributor in Iraq after the United States, announced it would be reducing its troop presence, and the Danish government declared its intent to withdraw its forces by August 2007.

Many of those countries retain troops in Afghanistan, either as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force or of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. As of April 2007, 21 countries other than the U.S. maintain troops in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But Smith warns that European governments have found it challenging to maintain support for continuing troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Renditions may become the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “It makes it extremely difficult [for European governments] to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S.”

Read more in National Security

Share this article

Join the conversation

Show Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments