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Leaked Cables Reveal U.S. Pressured Spain to Drop Case of Cameraman Killed in 2003 Attack on Journalists in Baghdad

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Leaked U.S. embassy cables from Madrid reveal the United States pressured the Spanish government to close a court case brought by the family of a Spanish cameraman, José Couso. Couso was killed in Baghdad when a U.S. Army tank fired on the Palestine Hotel, which was filled with journalists, on April 8, 2003. Three U.S. soldiers have been indicted in Spanish court for Couso’s death. “I am outraged,” says Javier Couso, the brother of José Couso. “I can’t believe my government conspired with a foreign government… It seems we are citizens, or at least a small province, of the empire of the United States.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I think what’s important here is the level of the documents, maybe underscoring the great journalist I.F. Stone’s comments, journalist — I.F. Stone the journalist’s comments, “Governments lie,” that what we see governments saying is very different what’s going on behind the scenes. And what those issues are, you were expressing, for example, in Spain, why this is causing such a furor, actually showing what the U.S. government was doing in other countries to prevent any kind of prosecution of, well, issues related to, for example, the Iraq war, Guantánamo, which takes us to this issue of the journalists being killed.

The leaked U.S. embassy cables from Madrid, that are getting a lot of attention in Spain, reveal U.S. pressure to drop a lawsuit brought by the family of a Spanish journalist who was killed in the U.S. military’s 2003 attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. A cable from May 14, 2007, authored by Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre, reads, quote, “For our side, it will be important to continue to raise the Couso case, in which three U.S. servicemen face charges related to the 2003 death of Spanish cameraman José Couso during the battle for Baghdad.”

Couso was a young cameraman with the Spanish TV network Telecinco. He was filming from the balcony of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, April 8th, 2003, when a U.S. Army tank fired on the hotel, packed with journalists, killing Couso and a Reuters cameraman.

For more on this cable and the Couso lawsuit, we’re going to Madrid, to Spain. We’re joined by Javier Couso, the brother of José Couso. Also with us on the line and translating for Javier Couso is former Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Maria, if you could first just explain this particular case and the impact it’s having in Spain. El País is one of the five newspapers working with WikiLeaks and releasing these documents over time.

MARIA CARRION: An enormous impact. That’s really all that’s being talked about. It’s even relegated the economic crisis we’re facing to a second topic. It’s very important because we’re seeing, although many people suspected this, the maneuverings that were going on, the political maneuverings that were going on behind the scenes, to try to shelve the Couso case, as well as others, in the Spanish national court. Javier has, as he would describe to you, not stopped giving interviews since this broke, this news broke. It’s been — they’re being heavily affected by this, because they’re seeing just how the Spanish government was playing into the hands of the American interests back in the Bush years, basically trying to have the Couso case thrown out and playing a two-prong strategy, not only on the political level, but also on the judicial level, trying to influence judges that have the case and prosecutors who are, you know, telling them that they have to appeal the case, and the Spanish government was basically walking step in step every minute with the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The Spanish court has reopened this case for the third time in the last few months into the killing of José Couso. I want to go back to the moment of the U.S. attack on the Palestine Hotel. This is a clip from the documentary Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness, produced by José Couso’s network, Telecinco. It was broadcast on Spanish television, includes interviews with numerous journalists who were inside the Palestine Hotel and helped rush José Couso to the hospital, where he later died. This clip begins with scenes taken inside the Palestine Hotel moments after the U.S. tank attack. A warning to our television audience, some footage contains graphic scenes.

NARRATOR: The shell explodes before hitting the hotel facade and sprays the upper floors with shrapnel. The Reuters room suffers the dramatic consequences. Near the balcony, their cameraman Taras Protsyuk receives the full blast and collapses, mortally wounded. Paul Pasquale finds himself on the floor covered with blood.

JON SISTIAGA: [translated] I couldn’t believe that it was the Americans until I reached Couso, who was conscious, who was awake, and he told me it was the tank.

ANTONIO BAQUERO: [translated] Suddenly we saw a damaged balcony. It was the 15th floor. But I started to count. One, two, three, four, five…15. They hit the Reuters room. The first thing I thought was, “Damn it, Couso is right below there.”

JON SISTIAGA: [translated] It was a tank, because Couso saw how they shot him. He was looking at the tank when he was hit. He was aware of who killed him.

ANTONIO BAQUERO: [translated] And then I saw the camera on the floor, destroyed, and the pool of blood. That moment is frozen in my mind. I remember I stopped saying, “My god, my god.”

AMY GOODMAN: Both José Couso and Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters cameraman, were on separate balconies filming — in the end, filming their own deaths, as the U.S. tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel. That’s an excerpt of the documentary Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness, produced by José Couso’s own network in Spain called Telecinco.

Well, I interviewed one of the many Spanish journalists who witnessed the attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, April 8th, 2003. Olga [Rodríguez], a correspondent for one of the leading radio networks in Spain, narrowly survived the attack herself. I spoke to her five years ago, when she came here to New York.

OLGA RODRÍGUEZ: We were in the balcony. We were living in that hotel, approximately 200 journalists, Europeans, American journalists. And that day before the attack, we said even hello to the troops. They were in the other side of the river, Tigris River, and they were there looking around as military people. They were trying to know what — which buildings were surrounding them, and that was the day before.

The 8th of April, we woke up early in the morning, and we saw some tanks already on the bridge. They were not hiding. They were there. When the attack happened, I saw them the first time like four hours before the attack on the bridge. And I was in the 16th floor of Palestine Hotel, and I was waiting for a phone call from my radio station in Spain, because I had to be on the air, and I was on the balcony. Suddenly, my phone rang, so I went inside the room. And when I was doing that, the attack came.

At first, I thought that I was dead. I felt completely empty inside me. I couldn’t hear anything. Then five seconds later, I reacted. I started to touch myself. I discovered some blood in my leg, and I decided to run. I went to the other room where some Spanish journalists were, and I said, “I cannot hear anything. We have been attacked.” And after that, we went stairs down. When we arrived to the 14th floor, where José —

AMY GOODMAN: Fifteenth?

OLGA RODRÍGUEZ: In the 15th floor, there were Reuters people. One of them, Taras, was dead, immediately, in that attack. But we didn’t know that. When I arrived to the 14th floor, an Italian journalist who was a friend of mine was shouting, “José is injured. José is hurt.”

Like one hour after that, I talked with Spain by phone, and my boss said to me, “The Pentagon has recognized that it was an American attack.” And I couldn’t believe it, because I knew that they knew that that hotel, as everybody in the world knew, that hotel was the place in which were living 200 journalists from Europe, from America, and they were not far away. They didn’t arrive ten minutes before the attack. They were there before, 36 hours before. They knew exactly where the Palestine Hotel was, even from the bridge. They could — you can go to the bridge in Baghdad, and you can see Palestine Hotel in English in the building.

AMY GOODMAN: Olga Rodríguez is a Spanish journalist with Cuatro TV. She was there at the Palestine Hotel. She herself was wounded as she observed the attack that killed José Couso. We’re joined in Madrid by Javier Couso, his brother.

Javier Couso, you and your mother have not let this case die. Can you explain, now with the release of the cables that show the U.S. putting pressure to have this case dropped, what your response is?

JAVIER COUSO: [translated] First, we are absolutely horrified and outraged by this — horrified because we cannot believe that our government and our prosecutors conspired with a foreign government to prevent the investigation of what happened to my brother, a Spanish citizen, and outraged because we were lied to — we met with these people from the government and the prosecutor’s office, and they repeatedly told us that they would not get in the way of this investigation and this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Who have you sued? Name the names of the soldiers that you are going after here in the United States and what you want to see happen. Maria Carrion is translating for José’s brother, Javier Couso.

JAVIER COUSO: [translated] Well, in the lawsuit, we named several people and, thanks to the Supreme Court, which reopened the case in July of this year, were able to do so, against Captain Gibson, Sergeant Wolford and Lieutenant Philip de Camp. They are really the chain of command, from the sergeant who ordered the shot to everyone in the chain of command that made this happen. And we just want a fair trial. We obviously want these soldiers to be able to defend themselves, but we also want to know exactly what happened on that morning seven years ago. And we believe that that’s what should happen in countries that have a rule of law, and it’s something that should happen between two countries that presumably are allies, although now it seems like we are citizens, or at least a small province, of an empire of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, there was an arrest warrant issued for these three U.S. soldiers? Is that right? And what happened to it, Javier?

JAVIER COUSO: [translated] We were surprised to find that for the first time in the existence of Interpol, which was created at the beginning of the 20th century, this agency, Interpol, has refused a direct arrest order issued by the judge in this case. It is only valid within the eurozone.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Javier Couso, I want to thank you for being with us. And thank you, Maria Carrion, former Democracy Now! producer. We will continue to follow this case and continue, of course, to follow the release of these diplomatic cables, more than a quarter of a million. This is unprecedented, as we look not at the overall trove, but individually at these cables and what they mean for individuals and countries all over the world. Thanks so much for being with us. And thanks to Scott Horton, attorney here in New York, writes for Harper’s Magazine.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Reverend Jesse Jackson will be joining us. He, too, is included in this trove of WikiLeaks cables, back in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was released. Stay with us.

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