2 European anti-terror officials criticize U.S.

May 26, 2007|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,Los Angeles Times

FLORENCE, Italy -- Two of Europe's most prominent counterterrorism officials criticized the United States yesterday for not being fully cooperative in the global fight against Islamist extremism, saying that its unwillingness to share information and evidence in a timely manner has compromised important investigations and prosecutions.

The remarks were made by senior investigative magistrates Armando Spataro of Italy and Baltasar Garzon of Spain at a counterterrorism conference that was also attended by senior U.S. officials.

The Americans acknowledged some problems in sharing information and evidence but said that the situation was improving and that no relevant material was being withheld intentionally. "It happens both ways," said one senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

Other Europeans privately voiced concerns at the conference that the United States is not sharing evidence, in some cases because, they say, Washington is placing too much emphasis on holding terrorism suspects in CIA custody or elsewhere instead of prosecuting them in criminal court.

It was unusual, however, for two such prominent counterterrorism officials to criticize their U.S. counterparts directly in a public forum.

Garzon has spent nearly 20 years investigating and prosecuting terrorist networks in Spain, and has indicted Osama bin Laden and numerous other terrorism suspects. Spataro, also a veteran counterterrorism prosecutor, has angered the United States by opening a criminal case that led to charges being filed against 33 people, including 26 Americans, allegedly linked to the abduction of a Muslim cleric from a Milan street in 2003 as part of a CIA rendition.

Although the two judges voiced their complaints in an off-the-record session attended by reporters, they agreed to allow portions of their remarks to be used, and they amplified their comments afterward in separate interviews with the Los Angeles Times.

Spataro said that he has had problems with other countries, including France and Morocco, but said in an interview that Washington in particular has caused problems by not extending to Italy and other European allies the same kind of cooperation on counterterrorism matters as it has in the past on organized crime prosecutions and other criminal matters.

"I work many times with U.S. authorities with great satisfaction in other fields. But in this specific field, of counterterrorism, there is an important difference," said Spataro, coordinator of the counterterrorism branch and deputy chief prosecutor in Milan. "The trial and the legal investigation is at the center of our answer to terrorism. We also have the secret services. But there is a balance. I think that in the U.S. situation, the trial is not important."

As a result, Spataro said, "We have difficulties. We don't receive important information when we need to."

Spataro said he could not discuss some of the details of his problems with Washington because of the continuing nature of the cases, but he singled out the United States for criticism in one case in which Italian authorities are prosecuting a suspected terrorist cell that has sent fighters to Iraq to attack coalition troops. He said U.S. authorities reported that two men linked to the Italy-based group were killed while fighting in Iraq, but that Washington hasn't turned over important information about the men despite his repeated requests over the past several months.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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