Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wikileaks And The Madrid Bombings

The US diplomatic cables from Spain released by Wikileaks contain little unknown information about the Madrid bombings, but they do shed some light on the handling of the bombings by the government in power at the time. On the day of the bombings, March 11th 2004, it is clear that the US embassy in Madrid believed the story coming from the Spanish government that that attack was the work of the Basque group ETA. What is emphasised in the cable sent from the embassy is the intense diplomatic pressure from the Aznar administration to consider only the possibility of ETA authorship.

The cable was sent just before 2 p.m. on the day of the train bombings, before any of the key evidence of Islamist responsibility started to emerge. It quotes the then interior minister, Angel Acebes, as saying "I will not accept the intolerable assertion by those who try to divert the culpability to other groups." At this point on that day virtually the only person publicly suggesting Islamist responsibility was Arnaldo Otegi, a leader of ETA's political wing Batasuna. The cable states that the Madrid embassy received direct contacts from Aznar's office to say that the government was sure that ETA was responsible. "They request that the USG support this in its declarations and not express any doubt in public comments about the party responsible."

When the US ambassador spoke to Spain's foreign minister, Ana Palacio, she additionally requested that all references to ETA should describe them as "ETA terrorists" rather than "Basque separatists". This is a long standing demand of many Spaniards who appear to believe that reality is determined solely by the language you choose to describe it, and who constantly pressure international media groups to always describe ETA as terrorists. The cable comment section does not dispute the Spanish government's assertions regarding ETA but does note that such an attack by them represents a major shift in their modus operandi. It concludes by recognising that the government might benefit politically from ETA being held responsible, whereas any doubt about authorship could focus attention on the disastrous Spanish involvement in the Iraq war. The key issue at the heart of the Spanish government's handling of the bombings in the days between March 11th and the election on March 14th.

A few days later, on the 15th March, a further cable recognises that the focus of the investigation has now shifted to Al-Qaeda and describes the first arrests that were made by following the trail of the mobile phones used to detonate the train bombs. The cable also records the recovery on March 13th of the video tape in which a claim of responsibility was made for the Madrid  attacks. Later on in 2004 the political fallout from the bombings was captured in a cable describing how the former prime minister José Maria Aznar was kept out of the Partido Popular's campaign for the European elections because he was seen as being "too radioactive to help in the campaign." 

Then, in 2006, a cable updating the situation on terrorism related cases makes reference to the campaign behind the conspiracy theories concerning the bombings. The cable states "a segment of the opposition Popular Party (PP) and the newspaper El Mundo continue to allege a Socialist party conspiracy and cover up and claim that the Basque terrorist group ETA had some link with the March 11 attacks." It goes on to note that the attitude of the PP is slowing the pace of the prosecution of those charged with the bombings. These cables were issued under the Bush administration which was far more favourable towards the Aznar government than the successor one led by Zapatero. A real coup for Wikileaks would of course be the release of the documentation concerning the bombings that was either  removed or destroyed by Aznar's government before leaving office. That would have much to tell us about the days between March 11th and the 14th 2004.