by Zach Campbell, The Intercept:
TENSIONS ARE RUNNING high in Barcelona. Last month saw a terrorist attack on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Las Ramblas, which killed a dozen people and injured more than 100. At the same time, Barcelona and the greater region of Catalonia are a day away from an independence referendum that has pitted the Catalan and Spanish governments against each other in a way unseen since the fall of Franco’s military dictatorship in the 1970s.
The central government in Madrid is bent on preventing the Oct. 1 referendum: in the last week, Spanish military police have shut down multiple websites associated with the referendum, and raided newspaper offices, TV stations and print shops in search of the ballots and ballot-boxes to be used in the vote. The Spanish interior minister has attempted to seize control of the Catalan police. Meanwhile, two ferries docked in Barcelona’s port are housing thousands of riot police that Madrid has said it plans on using to physically stop the vote. Spanish police have arrested at least a dozen members of the Catalan autonomous regional government and others involved with the independence movement, threatening charges of “sedition“ and “rebellion.“
Last month, as the referendum fervor was heating up, leading Spanish daily newspaper El Periódico published a document alleging that the CIA had warned the Catalan police about a potential attack in Barcelona. The document stated that three months before the attack, the CIA had warned the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, of “unsubstantiated information of unknown veracity“ pointing to a summer attack in Barcelona. The document (pictured below) named Las Ramblas as a potential target.
The revelation had huge implications—if true, it would represent a case of gross negligence on the part of the Catalan police and evidence that Catalonia’s president, interior minister, and police chief had lied to the public. But El Periodico’s initial story unraveled quickly: Soon after its publication, local journalists questioned the veracity of the document. Supposedly authored by the CIA, it was plagued with spelling and formatting errors typical of Spanish speakers. Even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweeted that he thought it looked fake.
The publication of the document raises many questions. If it is indeed fake, was it created by El Periódico, or did the newspaper get spun a fabrication by an outside source who was intent on undermining trust in Catalonia’s authorities? Just over one month after the attacks in Barcelona and prior to Catalonia’s impending referendum, The Intercept has delved into the strange case in an effort to shine light on the murky origins of the alleged CIA report.
The story started as a blip in the live coverage of the attack on Aug. 17, 2017. Less than one hour after a large van had rammed through crowds of people on Las Ramblas, El Periódico published an entry on its live blog stating that the “CIA warned the Mossos two months ago that Barcelona, specifically [Las Ramblas], could be the location of a terrorist attack like the attack that happened today.” At the time, dead bodies were still scattered across the street’s pedestrian center.
El Periódico wasn’t the only Spanish newspaper publishing articles trying to prove that police had been warned of a potential attack. In the days following the incident, for example, El País ran a story stating that Belgian intelligence had alerted the Mossos about one of the attackers earlier this year. But the El País report was quickly debunked. Still, the Spanish and Catalan press were eager for the police negligence story.
El Periódico published the first document on Aug. 31, which it claimed was a section of a CIA report about a potential attack in Barcelona. Days earlier, Catalonia’s president and interior minister had both made public statements saying that there had been no warning from the CIA, in response to El Periódico’s post on the day of the attack.
Josep Lluís Trapero, head of the Mossos, held a press conference to say the same, though he added one small detail—the Mossos did receive a warning in May about a potential attack in Barcelona, but it wasn’t from the CIA and it was sent to all levels of Spanish police. Trapero said that the Mossos, alongside the Spanish national police, military police and counterterrorism officials, had all determined the notice to be of “very low quality.” And either way, Trapero insisted, El Periódico’s document was false.
Still, the story was picked up all over Spain and internationally. Politicians and journalists accused Catalonia’s president, interior minister, and police chief of lying to the public about the alleged CIA warning. Each of the three officials were responsible for critical aspects of Catalan governance and all three supported the independence movement. With the Oct. 1 referendum looming, the accusations of negligence and misinformation were significant and damaging.
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