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U.S. anti-terror role criticized

Times Staff Writer

Two of Europe’s most prominent counter-terrorism officials on Friday criticized the United States for not being fully cooperative in the global fight against Islamist extremism, saying its unwillingness to share information and evidence in a timely manner had compromised important investigations and prosecutions.

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

The Americans acknowledged some problems in sharing information and evidence, but said the situation was improving and that no relevant material was being withheld intentionally.

“It happens both ways,” said one senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

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Some other Europeans privately voiced concerns at the conference that the United States was not sharing evidence, in some cases because, they say, Washington was 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 suspected terrorists. Spataro, also a veteran counter-terrorism prosecutor, angered the U.S. 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 practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

In a rendition, terrorism suspects are captured and handed into the custody of other governments for interrogation. Many, including the Egyptian cleric seized in Milan, allege that their interrogation included torture.

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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 Times.

Spataro said he has had problems with other countries, including France and Morocco, but said in an interview that Washington in particular had caused problems by not extending to Italy and other European allies the same kind of cooperation on counter-terrorism matters as it had 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 counter-terrorism, there is an important difference,” said Spataro, coordinator of the counter-terrorism 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, he said, “We have difficulties. We don’t receive important information when we need to.”

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Spataro said he could not discuss some of the details of his problems with Washington because cases were ongoing, but he singled out the U.S. 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 the U.S. reported that two men linked to the Italy-based group were killed as suicide bombers in Iraq but that Washington hadn’t turned over important information about them despite his repeated requests over several months.

“It was very important for us to obtain this evidence for our trials, to demonstrate the charge that in the group there were two people that died in Iraq,” Spataro said. The American officials “said they couldn’t release” the information, he said.

Spataro also cited the case in Germany of Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan suspected of being an accomplice of the Sept. 11 hijackers, whose case was delayed and initially thrown out after U.S. officials refused to produce a key witness to testify against him. Information from coercive interrogations by the military or CIA is not admissible in criminal court, especially if there are allegations of torture. At a retrial, however, Motassadeq was found guilty of being an accessory to mass murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Garzon, Spain’s most prominent counter-terrorism official, said U.S. authorities had withheld evidence or delayed sharing it to protect sources and methods, which had the effect of undermining the efforts of various European governments.

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He said he had to wait more than a year in some cases for information from the U.S., and in one case still hadn’t received it. Asked why, he said: “I don’t have an answer. It is a very important problem with the U.S.”

U.S. officials attending the two-day conference here, organized by New York University’s Center on Law and Security, acknowledged that the sharing of information with international counterparts often took too long, in part because top-secret sources and methods of gathering intelligence were used. Such investigations generate mountains of paperwork, much of which needs to be translated and vetted to make sure those sources and methods are not compromised, they said.

Michael Garcia, the U.S. attorney for New York City and formerly a top U.S. counter-terrorism official in Washington, said that despite such complications, the Justice Department had been extremely cooperative with its European counterparts. He cited the case of Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani American terrorism suspect in U.S. custody who recently was handed over to British authorities so he could testify in a high-profile terrorism case there.

“They got a very good result,” including five convictions, Garcia said in an interview. “That’s just one example.”

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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