US-Maltese relations have taken a significant upturn. But why is America seeking better relations with the Maltese? MATTHEW VELLA looks at the most recent developments in the two countries’ post 9-11 bond.
Michael Frendo’s seat at the European Union’s foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg was empty this week. Instead of joining his counterparts at the negotiating table for the important and challenging Turkish accession into the EU, Frendo was in Washington, accompanying Lawrence Gonzi on his momentous meeting with George W. Bush.
Frendo’s absence could not have spelt out more clearly the recent upturn in relations between America and Malta. As Gonzi clinched the longest, and warmest ever, meeting with a US president in Maltese history – 35 minutes – Washington was never as close to Malta as ever before.
International relations expert Stephen C. Calleya, also the deputy director of the university’s Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, strongly believes a “significant upgrade” in bilateral relations is in fact at hand.
And it only follows closely on a series of steps in which American interests in Malta have been growing over the last five years, not least with the changing perception of Malta as an EU member, and the ticking clock for North African states whose ageing leaders put the future of these countries into question.
“Malta’s cooperative security policy in the Mediterranean and the active role it plays in the EU’s Barcelona Process and Neighbourhood Policy since becoming an EU member have enhanced its perception in Washington as an important player in Euro-Mediterranean relations,” Calleya claims. “Promoting political and economic stability across the Maghreb and Middle East is a goal both Malta and the US share, so cooperating more closely with one another is mutually beneficial.”
Observers certainly latched on to statements by Portland Republican Molly Bordonaro, the new US ambassador, whose revelations in a Times interview in which she said Malta had given the US airspace rights, may have gone beyond her mere brief. Lino Spiteri pondered on the unclear developments between the US and Malta, and whether the government was indeed being transparent about US security requests.
But something has indeed changed. The US embassy is moving away from Development House in Floriana, to a massive USD18.5 million compound in Ta’ Qali, to take over the electoral counting hall’s expansive area. Millions have been spent by the US for the training of Maltese soldiers, weapons procurement, and the provision of patrol boats. Malta even wrote off a Lm2.8 million debt to Iraq as part of a 2004 agreement by the Paris Club of creditor nations.
And most importantly, it got the Maltese on board of its big brother network – the only EU member state – by installing the controversial Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES), a databank which, in the succinct words of a US spokesperson, tracks down “bad guys coming in or going out.”
Close to EU, close to US
Lino Spiteri, a former Labour minister, revealingly commented how on a 1995 jaunt with Opposition leader Alfred Sant to meet US government officials, their concerns over economic relations between the two countries fell on deaf ears: “They were solely concerned to drum the fact that God, in His wisdom, placed us close to North Africa and Libya in particular.”
Indeed, Malta’s importance was never more than that of an island whose proximity to Libya was to be balanced out by enduring its “pro-Western orientation”. For years before EU membership, the joint reports presented by the US Department of State and Department of Defence to the US Congress to approve foreign spending in Malta’s military, claimed the US interests in Malta, unchanging and repeated every year, were simply “checking Libyan influence.”
It also provided training to the Armed Forces of Malta, hosting personnel in the US on its international military education and training (IMET) programmes, or other programmes designed to beef up responses to the drugs trade, terrorism or other shipments of embargoed goods.
All that appeared to have changed after EU accession in 2003, when funding for the year totalled USD5.7 million in weapons procurement, IMET programmes, and other defence articles under the non-proliferation, anti-terrorism, demining and related (NADR) programme.
The attributes of the new Maltese nation took a hyperbolic upturn: now, US national interests included “extending our presence in Malta to check Libyan influence internationally”. Malta had become a “key forward boundary” that bridged Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It had become “an active partner with the US” in combating terrorism and WMD proliferation. It was serving as a “proxy nation” in promoting regional security and stability. And in their most recent joint report, the US departments of state and defence describe Malta as having been “responsive to requests related to the Global War on Terrorism”.
The Malta Freeport also started to attract more attention. Suddenly, a joint report in 2004 started describing the port as a “potentially serious weapons of mass destruction transhipment threat,” compounded by its location “near Libya, Syria and Algeria” and Malta’s “history of lax law enforcement”. The US came back with a gift: a VACIS container scanner.
The Malta Shipyards also started being described as a “major ship repair facility vital to the US Navy”, certainly characterised by the regular visits of US warships to Valletta in the last five years.
All funding was virtually suspended in 2004 however, when Malta, a signatory to the International Criminal Court, did not sign the Article 98 agreement with the US, which absconds US army personnel from international criminal prosecution.
According to their joint report that year, the Americans claimed Malta felt “pressured not to sign” the Article 98 agreement, fearing it might endanger its EU candidacy. Maybe it was the Americans being apologetic. Maybe it was what the Maltese told them behind closed doors.
As funds plummeted down to just USD250,000, the US embassy in Valletta asked Washington to waiver the suspension of funds, which today remains under review.
The US still obliged with training the AFM in counter-terrorism, the interception of WMDs, and to increase intelligence efforts to “target the terrorist threat”. The AFM was now “also concerned with building a crisis response capability to a terrorist activity.” And according to the latest joint report, for 2006 the departments of state and defence are planning to “help Malta respond to a WMD-related event.”
Surely, the latest joint report description of the Malta Freeport is the least heartening: “The threat of weapons of mass destruction and dual-use material transhipment through the Maltese Freeport is potentially serious. In 2004, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) established Freeport as its Mediterranean hub. Also, Malta is close to other states of interest (Libya and Algeria).”
Malta’s responsiveness to US requests on the hackneyed global war on terror may have started being matched by some economic return: a political commitment for a double-taxation agreement, the possibility of the US waiving the visa requirement for Maltese citizens, and once again the possibility of more US support for the island’s security measures.
Even on the matter of illegal immigration, it has been the US to have tangibly been more forthcoming in strengthening the AFM’s maritime squadron, than the EU has been responsive to Malta’s pleas for financial support.
But at what cost does growing American presence in Malta come? Which are the airspace rights given to the US? And how responsive have the Maltese been to US security and counter-terrorism requests?
One way has been the installation of the controversial PISCES, a USD1.5 million tracking system installed at Malta’s major points. Together with Malta – the only EU state to have had PISCES installed – other so-called “willing nations” have joined the Terrorist Interdiction Programme’s network: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Uganda. All examples of governments recently converted to pro-US sentiment from rogue status, whether by force or not.
The controversial nature of PISCES stems from the fact that it is still unclear as to what data is being processed on non-EU nationals passing through Malta, and how this data is being used by the Maltese government.
Is it being passed on to other third parties, for example, without the prior knowledge of the passengers themselves? In October 2004, Vienna International Airport authorities refused disembarcation to two Syrian nationals on Air Malta flight KM513, suspecting them to be potential illegal immigrants.
Air Malta denied handing over any PNR data or a manifest of passengers to the airport before KM513 landed. However VIA officials were on hand to stop the Syrians from getting down from the plane.
Despite having travelled with legal and proper documentation, VIA claimed with MaltaToday the two Syrians were potential illegal immigrants. Having traced a bizarre itinerary to Armenia, leaving Damascus to travel via the “well-known” Cairo-Malta route and then catch their interconnecting flight from Vienna, VIA said it suspected the Syrians were planning on stopping in Vienna instead of going on to their final destination.
Whether PISCES data had been exchanged with Vienna or not was never established. But several international reports claim the tracking system, originally designed for the Central Intelligence Agency, is connected to the FBI.
In its most ubiquitous of descriptions, PISCES was recently described by Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli as helping to track down “bad guys coming in or going out.”
The US embassy in Malta has claimed PISCES is a standalone system, and not part of any network connected to the US government. In fact it is the Maltese government which is solely responsible for the monitoring of PISCES data.
But a US congressional report on Pakistani anti-terrorism cooperation claims it is able to make “real-time comparisons of photographs and other personal details with the FBI database in order to track the movements of Islamic militants.”
Its success in the war against terrorism however is debatable: it had already been functioning at US airports prior to the September 11 attacks, apparently failing to identify the 9-11 terrorists. Kind of makes you feel less safe.