US embassy cables: Ethiopian intelligence chief gives rare interview
Monday, 08 June 2009, 12:33
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 ADDIS ABABA 001318
EO 12958 DECL: 06/07/2019
TAGS PGOV, PINR, PREL, KPAO, ET
SUBJECT: UNDERSTANDING THE ETHIOPIAN HARDLINERS
Classified By: Ambassador Donald Yamamoto for reasons 1.4 (B) and (D).
1. (S) In a rare meeting with the elusive head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and main hardliner within the powerful executive committee of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, Ambassador and NISS chief Getachew Assefa discussed a wide range of regional and bilateral issues. Getachew made clear during the four hour private meeting that Ethiopia sought greater understanding from the U.S. on national security issues vital to Ethiopia, especially Ethiopia’s concerns over domestic insurgent groups like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). He spoke at length about former Addis Ababa Mayor-elect Berhanu Nega XXXXXXXXXXXX; VOA’s biased reporting; the dangers of former defense minister Seeye Abraha’s growing authority within the opposition; Ethiopia’s views on democracy and human rights; Eritrea‘s role as a rogue state in the region; and regional issues including the importance of supporting the Transitional Federal Government and a rapprochement with Alhu Sunna Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) as the only option for Somalia’s survival; and the need for U.S. reconciliation with Sudan. End Summary.
TOWARD A BETTER UNDERSTANDING
2. (S) Through the arrangements of former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, Irv Hicks, Ambassador met with Ethiopia’s national intelligence chief, Getachew Assefa, for a four hour private meeting on June 4. Getachew, noted for his eccentric behavior and elusiveness, explained to the Ambassador that he welcomes greater dialogue with the U.S. Embassy, but underscored the importance of deeper U.S. understanding of Ethiopia’s security concerns. Characterizing the U.S. relationship as sound and expressing appreciation for the cooperation with the U.S. on special projects on counterterrorism, Getachew emphasized that Ethiopia shares U.S. views on high value targets (HVT) like Robow and al-Turki as threats to regional stability. But domestic insurgent groups, like the OLF and ONLF, should also be treated as terrorists because they have safe haven camps in extremist-held areas in Somalia and receive support and assistance from the very same HVTs that the U.S. and Ethiopia are trying to neutralize. Such support makes the ONLF and OLF accomplices with international terrorist groups, Getachew argued. Just as Ethiopia would not meet with domestic U.S. insurgent groups, referring to individuals and groups who would conduct bombings of U.S. government offices, abortion clinics and advocates of racial and gender hate, Ethiopia would not want U.S. officials to meet with Ethiopia’s domestic insurgents who bomb and kill Ethiopian officials and citizens.
3. (S) Getachew added that the GOE does conduct talks with the ONLF and OLF and there are groups, like the Ethiopian elders, who reach out to the membership in an effort to end the violence. Getachew stressed that this is an Ethiopian process by Ethiopians and should remain an Ethiopian-led, Ethiopian-directed and Ethiopian-coordinated process. Ambassador made clear that the U.S. Administration does not meet with the ONLF and that the U.S. is in close consultations with Ethiopian authorities on their views on the ONLF and OLF, and that the U.S. supports the work of the Ethiopian Elders to end the violence. Getachew noted the visit to European Capitals and Washington of ONLF senior leaders and said they met with staffers in the U.S. Vice President’s office. The Ambassador said that we had no evidence that a meeting took place with the Vice President’s staff and stressed that the State Department did not meet with the ONLF group. Further, the U.S. military no longer meets with alleged ONLF supporters in the volatile Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia because of security concerns. The Ambassador stressed that such meetings in the past was for force protection of U.S. military civil affairs team working in the dangerous Ogaden region near Somalia, but in the last few years there has been no contact. The Ambassador added that there should be closer discussion between he U.S. and Ethiopia on this issue.
U.S. GIVES EXTREMISTS A VOICE AND LEGITIMACY
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4. (S) Getachew complained pointedly that Voice of America (VOA) is biased and gives a platform for extremist elements. XXXXXXXXXXXX
5. (S) Getachew also discussed the VOA reports covering former State Department official Greg Stanton of Genocide Watch, who charged Prime Minister Meles of crimes against humanity as a result of Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia in 2006. Getachew complained that VOA Amharic reporting was biased and not even handed. He did note that VOA English was fine. VOA Amharic service does not interview Ethiopian officials who can refute “false assertions” espoused in the VOA interviews. Getachew praised Germany’s Deutsche Wella service for its balanced and yet hard hitting reporting. Getachew underscored that if the GOE is doing something wrong or does not have the support of the people, news services have an obligation to highlight such problems. Getachew said VOA, however, seeks to report only what is anti-government or lend support for the opposition. Getachew concluded that the U.S.G., because of VOA Amharic service is an official arm of the U.S.G., lacks neutrality in its support for the opposition and this undercuts relations between the two countries. The Ambassador replied that VOA is a very independent media and the U.S.G. does not have oversight and control over the content of the reporting.
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7. (S) Getachew commented on Ethiopia’s opposition leadership underscoring that he wishes to see a vibrant opposition movement, but currently, the NGO community and foreign missions support the opposition blindly without critical analysis. XXXXXXXXXXXX
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DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
9. (S) Getachew echoed common themes advocated by the ruling EPRDF party stalwarts from the Prime Minister to the party faithful. He stressed that the EPRDF supports democracy and that it is the goal for the ruling party to eventually give way to other parties of common vision in fighting poverty and a commitment to support the process of democratization. Getachew said he would support opposition parties if they have a better message to help Ethiopia overcome poverty, improve health care and education, and raise the standard of living of the Ethiopian people. He added that the U.S. and others should look at Ethiopia’s democracy efforts and human rights record as a work in progress. It will take time but Ethiopia is moving in the right direction that will make Ethiopia a democratic state.
FOREIGN POLICY: ERITREA, SOMALIA, AND SUDAN
10. (S) Getachew described Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki as “no martyr,” who sought to survive and establish himself as the predominate leader in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia stands in the way of Isaias’ grand design and it is his goal to divide Ethiopia and weaken it through terrorism. Getachew remarked that one of Isaias’ bodyguards was in Dubai and then defected to Ethiopia. The bodyguard remarked that Isaias was a recluse who spent his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work. Isaias appeared to make decisions in isolation with no discussion with his advisors. It was difficult to tell how Isaias would react each day and his moods changed constantly. Getachew added that Eritrea trains over 30 rebel groups at Camp Sawa near the Sudan border and graduates are infiltrated into Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia to enhance instability and target Ethiopian interests. Getachew expressed dismay with Kenya in allowing Eritrean intel officers and military trainers who support al-Shabaab in Somalia, to bribe their way out of Kenya and return to Eritrea. He explained the activities of Abraha Kassa, Eritrea’s elusive intel chief who directs Eritrea’s Somalia operations.
11. (S) On Somalia, Getachew said the only way to support stability was through support for the ASWJ which attracts a wide range of support from all the clans, especially those groups in conflict with each other. The ASWJ has been effective in countering al-Shabaab and is ideologically committed to Sufism and the defense of Islam against the extremist salafists which form al-Shabaab. Getachew said the U.S. can best help by supporting the ASWJ and TFG to cooperate, to pay salaries of TFG troops and support the IGAD and African Union which are seeking to sanction Eritrea, implement a no fly zone, and close ports used by extremist elements.
12. (S) On Sudan, Getachew urged the U.S. to engage Bashir and the Sudanese leadership. Sudan, more than Somalia, poses the greatest threat to regional security and stability, Getachew argued. The prospects for a civil war which destabilizes the region would be devastating. The only country that would benefit would be Eritrea.
13. (S) It is interesting that Getachew’s description of President Isaias mirrors Getachew’s own character, as well.
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Getachew avoids speaking with foreigners and few foreigners really know him. He is not well liked within his own agency for decisions he makes in isolation which, at times, make little sense and are not discussed in consensus with his staff. His apparent hot temper and reclusive habits have made it difficult for his staff to gauge his moods and understand his thought process. The Prime Minister himself and other EPRDF leaders have remarked to the Ambassador that it is difficult to talk with Getachew and to meet with him, but that his loyalty to the EPRDF is never in question. Despite his poor reputation, Getachew is regarded as a strong EPRDF hardliner and commands considerable authority and influence within the powerful EPRDF executive committee which lays down the policy for the ruling party and the government. While relations with NISS officials below Getachew’s rank are extremely cordial and, depending on the unit, very close, the Ambassador has met with Getachew only twice in the past three years, and other Embassy staff have also met with little success in engaging him. Even visiting senior U.S. intel officers have not been successful in meeting Getachew. Ambassador will pursue future meetings with Getachew but he will never be a close contact. End Comment. YAMAMOTO