By Carol Rosenberg
From The Miami Herald
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.
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.”
“And it’s the Obama administration doing it to protect Bush people,” he said.
Martinez, a former trial lawyer, said through two spokeswomen at JP Morgan Chase, where he’s Florida chairman, that he would not comment.
Nor would Bush’s political appointee, Ambassador Aguirre, who is now a Houston-based consultant and like Martinez came from Cuba as a teen through the Pedro Pan movement.
Given his pedigree as a Bush insider and 2006-2007 Republican Party chairman, Martinez had greater access than most senators in Madrid. He would invariably offer, said the official, “Is there a message you’d like me to deliver?”
If he agreed with the message, he’d convey it — in visits that at one point took him to the palace to greet King Juan Carlos.
“Mel was loyal to President Bush and loyal to the people who were loyal to President Bush,” said the former Bush-era diplomat. “He didn’t look at whether it’s the Bush administration or the Obama administration. He asked himself, `Is it the right thing to do?’ ”