TOPICS: Why CIA’s secret flights irk Europeans

Stoking the smouldering international controversy over America’s conduct of its war on terror, a European Parliament inquiry has found that the CIA carried out as many as 1,000 secret flights through Europe since the 9/11 attacks. An interim report by a committee investigating such activity alleges that the CIA occasionally snatched suspects from city streets and whisked them to far off countries or to the US detention facility in Guantánamo, Cuba.

The allegations have so far created few official waves, coming as they do as European governments mull over their own responses to international terrorism - and after reports late last year had already prompted a round of transatlantic diplomacy. But the response does indicate that the US has a black eye not so much with European governments, but with European publics. And it also hints, as the report alleges, that at least some European governments not only knew of the flights and transfers of suspected terrorists, but also cooperated with them.

The European Parliament is an elected body but has few powers and is considered the weakest branch within the Brussels-based European Union bureaucracy. Thus experts doubt the allegations will have a “large impact” in official circles, in part because of earlier indications that European governments were not uniformly in the dark on the CIA practices. In fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during past consultations with European officials that the US always respected the “sovereignty” of all its allies. In public comments Wednesday, Italian Socialist Claudio Fava, leader of the European Parliament inquiry, said it was “improbable” that the Milan “kidnapping” by CIA agents of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar in February 2003 was undertaken “without the previous knowledge of Italian authorities and security services.”

For its part, the CIA has responded to the European Parliament report by reiterating that transferring international terror suspects — a practice known as “rendition” — has been CIA policy for decades. But it denies undertaking what is called “extraordinary rendition,” or the transfer of suspects to third countries where torture is used.

European officials have also shied away from taking a “holier than thou” approach with the US as differences have been overridden by a sense of facing a common enemy — especially as Europe has been hit by terror attacks carried out by Islamist extremists. But European countries still are more apt to see the fight against terrorism as a police and intelligence matter and eschew calling it a “war” as the US does. Cooperation, however, has tended to overcome such philosophical disputes. That overarching “we’re in this together” sense appears to be growing, even as reports such as this week’s from the European Parliament cause periodic outcries. As one example, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar is calling for NATO to adopt the battle against Islamist extremism as one of its central objectives. — The Christian Science Monitor