The revelations made by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González in an interview with Juan José Millás, published on Sunday in EL PAÍS, have caused political shockwaves.
Popular Party (PP) officials claim that the Socialist González, the longest-serving leader in Spain's democratic history, has identified himself as the "Mr X of GAL" by admitting that during his 1982-1996 tenure, he once had a chance to give the order to kill the entire leadership of ETA, after unknown sources discovered the exact date and location where the terrorists were going to meet, somewhere on French soil.
Although González said he finally decided against it, the conservative party says that the fact he had this opportunity effectively links him with GAL, a state-funded undercover group created in the 1980s to fight the Basque terrorists using unlawful methods.
"The chances we had of arresting them were zero; they were outside our territory"
"If the decision to kill or not to kill in France was made by the prime minister, then we know what he decided once, but not whether he made different decisions on other occasions," argued Esteban González Pons, the PP's deputy spokesman. Pons also said that González is admitting that "the shores of GAL reached as far as the prime minister's table," in reference to a group that, according to subsequent investigations, was set up by high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry under González's tenure.
On the other hand, the speaker in Congress, José Bono - like González, a Socialist - said in a television interview that he wonders what "those who are now tearing out their hair" over González's statements would have done themselves, had they been given the opportunity to participate in that decision.
"Some people's cynicism is sky-high," said Bono, who asserted that González will go down in history as the leader who took Spain into the European Union.
González, 68, has been on the sidelines of power for the last 14 years yet remains visibly present in public life as a speaker at a variety of events. Praised by some as one of Spain's greatest statesmen and derided by others as the visible head of a period marked by a number of high-profile corruption cases involving state secretaries and even ministers (former Interior Minister José Barrionuevo was convicted for his role in the GAL kidnapping of a French-Spanish citizen named Segundo Marey), he has nonetheless been a seminal figure in contemporary Spanish history.
The subject of GAL - whose members were tried and convicted many years ago - resurfaced again recently when the newspaper El Mundo reported that Socialist officials, including the newly appointed deputy prime minister, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, tried to buy tapes of recorded conversations proving the González government's involvement with GAL. Some Socialist leaders believe that the PP is trying to use this information to attack Rubalcaba now that he is the number-two man in government.
Socialist leaders have denied the Rubalcaba link as "totally false," however.
González's controversial statements were part of a much larger interview conducted in late September, in which the former leader talked about his personal life and his views on everything from national politics to the global economic crisis.
"It's been a long time since I was in power, but I'm going to tell you something that may surprise you," he said at one point. "I still don't even know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing - I'm not putting a moral problem to you, because I'm not sure myself. I had one chance in my life to give an order to eliminate the entire ETA leadership. Before the fall of Bidart in 1992 [when ETA's leaders were arrested in one operation], they wanted to ruin the Olympic Games and get international coverage... I don't know how long before that, maybe in 1990 or 1989, I received a piece of information that had to reach all the way up to me because of its implications.
"This wasn't about ordinary anti-terrorism operations: our people had detected - I won't say who - the place and date of a meeting of ETA leaders in southern France. The entire leadership. It was an operation they'd been following for a long time. The day and place were known, but the chances we had then of arresting them were zero; they were outside our territory. And the possibility of France doing it at that time was very remote.
"Now it would be easier. Even if it was our own services that detected it, if ETA's leaders were to meet in a French location France would descend upon them and arrest the whole lot. But not back then. In those days, the only possibility was to blow them all up inside the house where they were going to meet. I won't even begin to tell you what the implications of acting on French territory would have been - I won't explain all the literature, but the bare facts were that there was a possibility to blow them all up and leave [ETA] headless.
"The decision was either yes or no. I'll cut to the chase: I said no. And I add: I still don't know whether I did the right thing. I am not suggesting that I would never do it for moral reasons. No, that's not true. One of the things that tortured me during the next 24 hours is how many murders of innocent people I could have saved in the next four or five years. That's the literature. The result is that I said no."
The Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (or GAL) were the only instance in Spain's democratic history of a state-sponsored "dirty war" against ETA. These undercover armed units were created in the 1980s, when the Basque terrorist organization was at the height of its power. The GAL, whose members were often mercenaries, acted against ETA members, although on occasion they targeted individuals with no known relation to the terrorist group.
Active between 1983 and 1987, they killed 23 people, mostly in the French Basque Country. Three of their most famous victims were Segundo Marey, who was kidnapped in December 1983 and released 10 days later when it became evident he was the wrong man, and ETA members José Lasa Arostegui and José Ignacio Zabala, who were murdered. The last GAL-related assassination took place in November 1989, when Josu Muguruza, a deputy with Herri Batasuna (ETA's political branch) was gunned down in Madrid, although GAL's responsibility was never ascertained.
Eleven people were eventually convicted by the Supreme Court for their role in creating or assisting GAL, including then-Interior Minister José Barrionuevo, state secretary for security Rafael Vera, the Socialist Party's secretary general in Vizcaya, Ricardo García Damborenea, Civil Guard General Enrique Rodríguez Galindo and police deputy commissioner José Amedo. Some media outlets posited that an unknown individual, the so-called Mr X, must have been the real head of GAL.