2 Swiss inquiries seek source of leak on CIA prisons

Posted in Other | 13-Jan-06 | Author: Doreen Carvajal| Source: International Herald Tribune

A soldier closes the entrance gate of Military Air Base nr. 86, near Mihail Kogalniceanu village (250km East from Bucharest), November 2005.
PARIS Swiss government and military officials are pressing two criminal investigations to track down the source of a leak to SonntagsBlick, a Zurich tabloid, of a secret document alleging the existence of clandestine CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.

The Sunday weekly published a summary of a fax in November from Egypt's Foreign Ministry to its London embassy that alleged that the United States had held 23 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners at a base in Romania. It also made reference to similar detention centers in Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia and Ukraine.

"The Egyptians have sources confirming the presence of secret American prisons," said the document, dated Nov. 15 and written in French to summarize the contents of the fax. "According to the embassy's own sources, 23 Iraqis and Afghans were interrogated at the Mikhail Kogalniceau base at Constanza on the Black Sea."

The leaked fax, which was sent by satellite and intercepted by the Swiss Strategic Intelligence Service, was signed by the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, according to SonntagsBlick.

Egypt has not commented on the fax, but it quickly reignited a political fury in Europe that began last autumn with news reports about alleged CIA interrogation centers and secret flights transferring suspected terrorists for questioning. Officials in Romania and Ukraine issued denials and Swiss criminal investigations opened after the article was published Sunday. European legislators also seized on the information as evidence of dissembling by EU members.

"This is a piece of real evidence to back up the gut instinct many of us have that the denials of complicity we are hearing from EU member and candidate states cannot be relied upon," Sarah Ludford, a British Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament, said in a statement.

The Swiss Army's chief prosecutor is investigating the editor in chief of SonntagsBlick, Christoph Grenacher, and two of his reporters for exposing military secrets, as well as investigating the source of the leaks. The Swiss attorney general is also investigating the issue, adding another layer to its existing investigation of CIA flights.

The CIA's role has come under scrutiny in Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, which are examining allegations that the agency used their airspace to transport suspected terrorists.

The United States has acknowledged flights but not the existence of prisons. A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on the Swiss revelations.

Grenacher said that before the article was published, newspaper officials met with high-ranking Swiss government officials who urged the paper to withhold the information.

"We concluded that the discussion about so-called secret prisons is much more important than the interests of the secret service in Switzerland," Grenacher said. During those discussions, he said, no one contested the authenticity of the document.

Conceivably, the journalists could face five years in prison for revealing military secrets, although no one prosecuted under the law has ever served any prison time, according to the authorities.

Martin Immenhauser, a spokesman for the military prosecutor, said that his agency opened investigations at the request of the Swiss Army's chief. There are limits on how much information they can obtain from journalists, who have the right under Swiss law to safeguard the names of their sources, he said.

The legitimacy of the document is still a question that will be addressed as part of the investigation, but Immenhauser added: "Nobody has told us that it's not authentic. I think you can say that it's 99 percent certain that it's authentic."

Within Switzerland, the story has given rise to a debate about just how the newspaper got its information, with much of the blame leaning toward the Swiss intelligence services, which include three agencies riven by infighting.

Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting to this article.