BRUSSELS, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- Just when the United States thought the transatlantic row over possible Central Intelligence Agency terrorist detention camps in Europe had blown over, the European Parliament followed the Council of Europe's decision to launch an investigation into the allegations by holding a rowdy debate on the issue Monday.
Washington-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch caused a diplomatic storm earlier this month by publishing flight records showing that a CIA-commissioned Boeing 737 transported suspected al-Qaida terrorists from Afghanistan and Iraq to Poland and Romania in 2002 and 2003. The allegations were corroborated by a Washington Post story that revealed details of eight "black sites" -- as the covert prisons are referred to in classified White House and CIA documents -- in South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Fresh allegations are putting more pressure on the Pentagon -- and EU governments -- to come clean about the affair. The New York Times reported Monday that Spanish police have opened a criminal investigation into reports that Majorca was used as a stopover for CIA planes transporting terrorist suspects to internment camps. And according to Swedish news agency TT, at least two airplanes hired by the agency have landed at Swedish airports.
Members of the European Parliament have been itching for a debate on the issue ever since the allegations were first made. On Monday, they got their chance at a meeting of the EU assembly in Strasbourg, France. As expected, they ripped into the U.S. administration's handling of the war on terror and lambasted the European Commission for failing to investigate the matter.
"We all feel solidarity with the victims of terrorism," said Portuguese center-right deputy Carlos Coelho, "But every step must be taken in respect to fundamental human rights and the rule of law." Baroness Sarah Ludford, a Liberal legislator from Britain, launched a scathing attack on the American government, saying it had made "disappearances a U.S. tactic." The war on terror, Ludford stated, had opened the "blackest of black holes."
Responding on behalf of the European Commission, Vice-President Franco Frattini said there was no evidence to prove that the U.S. intelligence agency had been hiding terror suspects at secret bases. He also said the commission had no powers to launch an investigation into the affair.
"We are in a position to put questions, but can we seize classified files of the CIA? No, sorry, that is not possible."
However, the EU's homeland security chief warned that if the allegations were found to be true, there could be the severest consequences. "Were these events to have occurred, then clearly this would constitute a grave infringement of the values and rules of the European Union," he told lawmakers. "Such a serious breach, where it is proven, may lead to serious political sanctions being taken against a member state of the European Union."
Under Article 6 of the European Union's rulebook, any state found to be violating fundamental human rights -- and the existence of secret detention centers flouting international law would constitute such a breach -- could find itself stripped of voting rights.
Frattini's reply, although blunt, failed to satisfy Euro-deputies. Italian communist Vittorio Agnoletto said the commissioner's statement reminded him of the "three monkeys -- hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing."
Ludford, like many center-left and green members of the EU's only directly-elected body, expressed their frustration at the commission's passive stance on the issue. "The commissioner said there is no evidence. But what has he done to find out? I am left with a sense of unease and residual doubt."
Members of the European Parliament, who have few formal powers in the foreign policy field, can take some comfort from the fact that the Council of Europe -- the continent's top human rights -- opened an investigation into the issue earlier this month.
If it finds evidence that Poland, an E.U. member, and Rumania -- which is expected to join the bloc in 2007 -- allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to set up prison camps on their territories, the 25-state club could be plunged into a deep crisis. At the very least, Warsaw would get a sharp dressing down. At worst, it could find itself temporarily suspended from EU decision making for violating basic human rights. Rumania, which is still a candidate to join the EU, could find its route to membership barred.
But whichever way the Council of Europe rules, the real loser will be the United States. Anger at the way intelligence was misused in the run up to the Iraq war, at the way prisoners have been treated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and at the way hard-fought-for rights have been trampled on in the war on terror is deeply felt in Europe. Washington is also blamed for refusing to deny the prison camp claims -- tantamount to an admission of guilt in many Europeans' eyes.
Allegations of secret CIA camps on European soil confirm many people's worst suspicions about U.S. tactics in the struggle against global terrorism. If the claims are confirmed, the impact on transatlantic relations could be devastating.