A Spanish CSI story?

Recent conspiracy theories about the Madrid bombings are being used to settle scores in politics and the media.

Robert Latona

Topics Politics

The story so far: Gil Grissom, head investigator in the television drama series CSI, and two other members of his Vegas crime lab team are indicted for perjury and tampering with evidence from the 9/11 terror attacks. They’re accused of lying about their findings to support a conspiracy theory that the jihad boys received outside help from a homegrown bunch of, um, Mormon polygamists. The New York Times breaks the story and predictably charges the Bush administration with cover-up, but the Washington Post promulgates the government’s version of the story and dedicates its headlines to excoriating its rival as ‘paper of record’. Meanwhile, it looks like Gil and his buddies are going to take the fall.

Hang on, wrong channel, it’s actually the news at nine from Spain, where conspiracy theory has broken out of its internet incubator and infiltrated the mainstream media. From there it seeped into the so-called real world of Spanish political discourse where it is exacerbating the half-healed traumas and social fractures caused by the 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid in which 191 people died.

What, exactly, is the conspiracy about? In short, the claim is that Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has suppressed hard evidence that the Basque separatist terror group ETA was involved in the massacre, sharing technical and logistic know-how with the Islamists, and possibly some leftover dynamite.

There are variations to this basic narrative, like the one about a sleeper cell in the Interior Ministry that organised the Madrid bombings as a coup to allow Zapatero’s Socialists to clamber out of the limbo of the unelectable, as they did, charge the then-ruling conservatives with duplicity, as they did, and win the elections held four days afterwards.

So goes the story currently peddled around Madrid by one of the 29 suspects going on trial next February for Europe’s bloodiest terror attack. This Spanish suspect is a small-time crook who has a sideline as an informant and maintained desultory contact with the fringes of ETA. He allegedly procured explosives for the terrorists in return for Moroccan hash. Spain’s daily El Mundo, whose editor-in-chief, Pedro J Ramirez, has bought into this story, quoted him at length.

Are the allegations of the Spanish terrorist suspect the only plinth holding up the purported conspiracy? Any criminal investigation is bound to leave inconsistencies and unanswered questions, and it’s tedious and complicated trying to make sense of them. The loose ends provide the room in which conspiracy theories can breed. For the Madrid atrocity, the loose ends include the backpack that wasn’t there, a parked van where detonators may or may not have been planted and, most recently, the controversy over judge Baltasar Garzon’s accusation that policemen falsified a document over boric acid. This latter event has brought what was just another conspiracy theory into the court system.

One report mentioned that boric acid, which was found in one suspect’s home, has been used by ETA when handling explosives. The reference to ETA was eliminated from the version submitted to the investigating magistrate. When El Mundo broke the story, Baltasar Garzón, the ‘superstar judge’ who tried to get Pinochet extradited from Britain, immediately gave the three forensic scientists who signed the report notice of legal jeopardy, a preliminary to indictment for perjury and forgery.

The three scientists claim their observations regarding ETA were removed by a superior officer, who forced them to sign a revised version of their report, presumably in accordance with Interior Ministry orders to ensure that not even the possibility of ETA’s involvement could be raised during the investigating magistrate’s inquiries. Prominent Socialist politicians such as Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba have publicly supported the hypothesis on which Garzon based his allegations, insinuating that the expert witnesses may have been induced by unidentified outside interests to lay a false trail pointing to ETA, which they were subsequently obliged to rectify. El Mundo, it is claimed, got hold of their original draft, which was never submitted to the courts and has no validity.

If you’ve lost the plot, don’t worry – most Spaniards have too. But it would be wrong to think this rubbish is harmless just because it is rubbish. Though the opposition Popular Party has not endorsed any of the allegations, just by calling on the government to ‘come clean’ it has foolishly let itself be identified with the theory and the Socialists have not been slow to pick up on it.

The controversy spells trouble for El Mundo editor Ramirez. El Mundo made its reputation a decade ago with its investigative reporting that exposed a number of political scandals. Foreign hacks usually dismiss the paper as ‘right-wing’, an odd allegation as it is partly owned by the Guardian. Ramirez remains virulently against the Iraq war and opposes the support that the former conservative Spanish government lent it.

Now Ramirez may have delivered himself into the hands of the same enemies who were present, cameras in hand, when he was caught cavorting with a prostitute a couple of years ago. He was spared then for his concupiscence, but now credulity may be his downfall. The rabidly pro-government El País has had a field day rebutting everything El Mundo says with sneers and gleeful rubbing of hands.

In a country where the only other large circulation daily that used to criticise the government, ABC, has been co-opted by a change of ownership, and all six national TV channels are controlled by Socialist loyalists, Spain desperately needs at least one media holdout that will stand up to Zapatero – until a better one comes along.

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Topics Politics


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