MIAMI — It was three months into Barack Obama's presidency, and the administration -- under pressure to do something about alleged abuses in Bush-era interrogation policies -- turned to a Florida senator to deliver a sensitive message to Spain:
Don't indict former President George W. Bush's legal brain trust for alleged torture in the treatment of war on terror detainees, warned Mel Martinez on one of his frequent trips to Madrid. Doing so would chill U.S.-Spanish relations.
Rather than a resolution, though, a senior Spanish diplomat gave the former GOP chairman and housing secretary a lesson in Spain's separation of powers. "The independence of the judiciary and the process must be respected,'' then-acting Foreign Minister Angel Lossada replied on April 15, 2009. Then for emphasis, "Lossada reiterated to Martinez that the executive branch of government could not close any judicial investigation and urged that this case not affect the overall relationship.''
The case is still open, on the desk of a Spanish magistrate, awaiting a reply from the Obama administration on whether it will pursue a probe of its own.
But the episode, revealed in a raft of WikiLeaks cables, was part of a secret concerted U.S. effort to stop a crusading Spanish judge from investigating a torture complaint against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five other senior Bush lawyers.
It also reveals a covert troubleshooting role played by Martinez. Now a banker, he won't discuss it.
The cause for alarm at the U.S. Embassy was what a U.S. diplomat called a "well documented'' 12-inch-tall dossier compiled by a Spanish human rights group. In the name of five Guantánamo captives with ties to Spain, it accused the Bush legal insiders of laying the foundation for abuse of detainees in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Of particular concern was that a swashbuckling Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, might get the probe under Spain's system, which gave judges extraordinary investigative powers.
Garzón had earlier made headlines by swearing out arrest warrants for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while he was getting medical attention in London, and Osama bin Laden. U.S. ambassador Eduardo Aguirre Jr. cast him as a publicity hound with an ``anti-American streak'' in one confidential cable.
If those efforts are any guide, a Spanish prosecution of the so-called Bush Six seems unlikely. Britain never turned Pinochet over to Spain for a war crimes trial, and bin Laden is still at large.
Rather, indictments would undermine U.S. diplomatic credibility on human rights and likely ground the six Bush lawyers in the United States, for fear of arrest overseas.
Another, April 1, 2009, cable shows the U.S. Embassy's political officer and legal advisor discussing Garzón with his boss, chief prosecutor Javier Zaragoza, who expresses his displeasure with the case. Separately, a third U.S. diplomat told a senior Spanish Justice Ministry official ``for international judicial cooperation'' that the U.S. government considered the potential for a prosecution ``a very serious matter.''
Civil rights attorney Michael Ratner, whose Center for Constitutional Rights has championed Guantánamo detainee rights, called the cables taken together ``quite dramatic.''
"The U.S. prides itself on our own independent judiciary,'' Ratner said. ``But here you have the hypocrisy of the U.S. government trying to influence an independent judicial system to bend its laws and own rules.''