How US worked to get three soldiers off the hook for cameraman's death

"We want continued cooperation from Spain until this case is dropped"

One of the biggest objectives at the US Embassy in Madrid over the past seven years has been trying to get the criminal case dropped against three US soldiers accused of the killing of a Spanish television cameraman.

According to a batch of secret cablegrams obtained by EL PAÍS through Wikileaks, US diplomats held a host of meetings about the case with then-Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the then-ministers of justice and foreign affairs, Juan Fernando López Aguilar and Miguel Ángel Moratinos, as well as Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido and High Court prosecutor Javier Zaragoza.

The High Court has charged three soldiers - Sgt. Thomas Gibson, Capt. Philip Wolford and Col. Philip de Camp, all of the Third Infantry Division of the US Army - for the killing of Telecinco cameraman José Couso on April 8, 2003 during a tank shelling of the Hotel Palestine where he and other journalists were staying while they were covering the war in Baghdad. Also killed was a Reuters cameraman, Taras Protsyuk of Ukraine.

Couso's family filed a court complaint one month after he was killed
After the warrants were issued, officials called Aguirre to reassure him
More information
US Embassy conspired to derail cases in Spain's High Court
Prosecutors deny exerting influence over High Court cases involving US
"Spain doesn't object to secret flights"

On May 25, 2007, US Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre, who served in Madrid between 2005-2008, wrote to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice days before her visit to Spain to tell her that the Zapatero government "has been helpful behind the scenes in getting the case appealed by the Spanish prosecutor." Aguirre recommended that Rice should express "continued US government concern" about the case when she met with Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Foreign Minister Moratinos. "We want continued vigilance and cooperation by the government of Spain until the case is dropped," Aguirre wrote.

Couso's family filed a complaint with the High Court the month after he was killed. The US Embassy didn't concern themselves during the first year of the case because they saw it moving at a snail's pace through the judicial system. But when High Court Judge Santiago Pedraz began pushing his investigation, Embassy personnel began to move. On July 22, 2004, the US chargé d'affaires Robert Manzanares spoke to then-Secretary of State Bernardino León to deliver a letter from then-US Defense Secretary Colin Powell addressed to Moratinos concerning the Couso prosecution. On October 19, 2005, Pedraz issued international arrest warrants for Gibson, Wolford and De Camp. In explaining his initiative, Pedraz said it was the only way he could get the three soldiers to testify because he wasn't getting any cooperation from the US Justice Department.

After the warrants were announced, López Aguilar and Moratinos contacted Aguirre to reassure him. Aguirre wrote a cable on October 21, 2005 in which he noted that the "ministers have moved quickly" to show the US government that "the executive was working to resolve this situation." Prosecutors filed an appeal to block the arrest warrants. Five months later, a High Court criminal panel dropped the entire case after considering that the shelling of the hotel had been "an act of war" and that the court had no jurisdiction in the case.

Couso's family appealed the decision and on December 14, 2006 the Supreme Court ordered Pedraz to reopen the case.

Zaragoza, the High Court chief prosecutor, telephoned the Embassy on May 14, 2007 to tell diplomats that he had filed another appeal. Zaragoza said that "while he was sympathetic toward the Couso family and there was strong political pressure related to the Couso case, his job was to make a technical/legal evaluation," Aguirre informed his superiors that same day.

On July 18, 2007 Conde-Pumpido had lunch with Aguirre where a number of judicial issues were discussed, including the Couso case. The attorney general "said that he continues to do what he can to get the case dismissed, despite public pressure from the family, leftist groups and the press," wrote Aguirre. On May 13, 2008, the High Court again revoked Pedraz's arrest warrants, ruling that the US soldiers had perhaps thought that Couso, who was videotaping from the balcony, was in fact a sniper.

Zaragoza and High Court Judge Javier Gómez Bermúdez both called the Embassy with the good news. "All indications from our contacts within the Spanish judiciary and the Embassy's legal advisor suggest that this case can go no further; the indictments have been revoked," wrote Hugo Llorens, then deputy chief of mission and now US Ambassador in Honduras.

But after new evidence surfaced, Pedraz again reopened the case on May 21, 2009. There are only a few cables released by Wikileaks that touch on the Couso investigation from that date onwards. Again the High Court dismissed it for the third time on July 14, 2009 and the Supreme Court reopened it on July 6, 2010.

Pedraz has been given permission from the CGPJ, Spain's judiciary watchdog, to travel to Iraq soon to examine the spot where Couso was killed. After numerous legal maneuvers and pressure, the US Embassy was unable to sweep the prosecution under the rug.

A demonstration outside the US Embassy in Madrid demanding justice for José Couso.
A demonstration outside the US Embassy in Madrid demanding justice for José Couso.RICARDO GUTIÉRREZ

"It's revolting how they played with us"

The Couso family had always suspected it, but it wasn't until the cablegrams were published this week that their worst fears were confirmed.

"It is revolting the way they played with our feelings, with our pain," said Lola Jiménez, the widow of Telecinco cameraman José Couso, killed in 2003 while working in Baghdad. "It is terrible how the United States pressured the government and the judicial authorities to close the case regarding my husband."

Javier Couso, José's brother, admits that it was "very painful" to read the secret US diplomatic detailing of how then-US Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre tried to derail the case. "I would have liked to have seen my country defend national sovereignty instead of conspiring with a foreign country to throw a monkey wrench in the wheels of justice. It is scary," he said.

The family's lawyers are currently studying whether to take legal action against Spanish justice officials for "conspiring" with the US government.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS