Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Paper Tiger?

Parliament Magazine - 20 February 2006

Are the knives already out for the parliament’s probe into CIA activities on EU soil? Nicola Smith investigates.

The European parliament’s temporary committee on alleged CIA rendition flights may facilitate new terrorist atrocities on European soil, claims one of its own members. British Conservative Roger Helmer has argued the parliamentary probe into suspected CIA detention centres in Eastern Europe and illegal seizures of terrorist suspects may, in fact, deter vital anti-terror investigations. “There will be, in the future, new terrorist attacks in Europe, or perhaps in my country. When those attacks take place, we on this committee will have to examine our consciences. “We will have to ask ourselves, did the work we did on this committee make those attacks less likely?”

While Helmer represents the extreme end of criticism about the parliamentary inquiry, others have questioned the exercise and fear it will be misused as a conduit for anti-American views. Even before the first meeting, cages were rattled by calls from Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford’s for US Vice-President Dick Cheney to be summoned to Brussels to testify. Her demands were dismissed by Conservative MEP Charles Tannock as “breathtakingly naïve.” “We’ve not even discussed anything substantive yet but the anti-Americans on the committee are already showing their true colours,” he said.

Tannock said he, and others, voted against the creation of the committee but now chose to sit on it to bring some balance to left-wing and liberal anti-American feeling. Of course we are totally opposed to torture but we also have to face up to the “clear and present danger” of terrorism, he argued. Tannock remains scathing about the point of having a “toothless” investigation with no legal powers. The committee had been set up as MEPs did not want to be “outshone” by the parliament’s “little brother” – the Council of Europe – he claims.

The Council of Europe, whose headquarters is found in the shadows of the European parliament in Strasbourg, was three months ahead of MEPs, launching its own investigation into the affair in November when news of alleged detention camps and CIA rendition flights broke in the American press. MEPs want to use an interim report by the council’s Swiss investigator Dick Marty as a launch pad for their own probe.

But Marty himself has come under fire from critics for making politically inflammatory statements on the basis of press cuttings and little concrete evidence. Marty, along with Council of Europe secretary general Terry Davis, will be asked to attend one of many hearings at the parliament. But could that lead to a case of the blind leading the blind? MEPs are unlikely to have the political clout to haul the director of the CIA, Porter Goss, over to Brussels as some would wish. As one deputy pointed out, current and former intelligence officials are bound by such things as ‘official secrets acts’ which do not exactly encourage them to blab confidential information to press-hungry MEPs.

Appeals for senior US officials to explain their government’s actions to the parliament are unlikely to pass first base. Asked last week whether the US was going to comply with MEP demands, assistant secretary for European affairs Daniel Fried avoided the question with the usual Washington mantra. “America was committed to protecting people against terrorism and would do so according to existing legal conditions and values,” he said. The administration was already talking to “thoughtful Europeans.” But does that mean MEPs?

Instead the parliament may be confined to endless hearings with the “converted.” Witnesses to be called include firebrand former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, who claims evidence obtained from torture has been used by the West, but has little to add to the current debate on CIA operations in Europe. Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro, investigating the alleged abduction of Muslim cleric Abu Omar in Milan, will also be invited. But the case is already well-documented and is unlikely to reveal new details to MEPs.

Even Human Rights Watch, instrumental in breaking the story in November, believes the issue has moved on. While the human rights body has welcomed European investigations to get to the bottom of whether detention centres and renditions really occurred in Europe, HRW’s John Sifton said the organisation’s own investigations had switched focus to North Africa. The scenario has caused other, particularly centre right, MEPs to question the entire purpose of the parliamentary enquiry. “We won’t find anything especially new and we will be unable to add much to what is already known,” said Forza Italia MEP Jas Gawronski. “I don’t think it’s worthwhile but lots of things in this parliament are not so I am not making a tragedy out of it.”

Others take a more reasoned view. Irish MEP Simon Coveney admitted the committee was “too big and too cumbersome” but argued “there is a point to it. If nothing else the US will be far less likely to continue with the policy of rendition through Europe. It will raise the necessary alarm bells.”