- "51455","2/1/2006 19:06","06BUCHAREST178","Embassy Bucharest","CONFIDENTIAL","","VZCZCXRO9077
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TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3567
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RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE","C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BUCHAREST 000178
STATE FOR EUR/NCE - BILL SILKWORTH
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/01/16
TAGS: PREL, PGOV, KCRM, ASEC, SOCI, MARR, MOPS, RO
SUBJECT: VANGOETHEM VERDICT, SENTENCING ROILS U.S.-ROMANIAN
Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Mark Taplin 1.4 B and D
1. (C) Summary. The acquittal of former MSG Detachment Commander Christopher VanGoethem on January 31 of negligent homicide, along with the news that he would only receive a reprimand for his conduct, has roiled U.S.-Romanian relations. The denouement of the case will likely complicate ratification by the Romanian parliament of the U.S. Romanian defense cooperation agreement, signed by Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Ungureanu in December. President Traian Basescu on February 1 expressed surprise and shock at the verdict to the Ambassador and stated it would be difficult for the GOR to \"justify having U.S. soldiers in Romania under the same circumstances.\" Foreign Minister Razvan Ungureanu urged a quick public explanation from the Ambassador and the USG to defuse public outrage. He also urged close coordination between our governments during what could be a difficult stretch of public criticism and private misgivings about what had appeared until just yesterday to be a model strategic partnership. End Summary.
2. (SBU) The Romanian media reacted with shock and outrage to news of the January 31 acquittal on negligent homicide charges by a U.S. court martial of former Embassy Bucharest MSG DET Commander Staff Sergeant Chris VanGoethem. The latter was involved in a December 4, 2003 automobile accident that led to the death of top Romanian rock star Teo Peter. The media has also focused on what was universally seen by Romanians as a derisory sentence -- a letter of reprimand -- for the two charges of obstructing justice and making false statements for which VanGoethem was found guilty. Comments from Teo Peter\'s son and brother expressed both cold rage and confusion at the verdict, and their comments have been played over and over again on Romanian media today. Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, on an official visit to Ankara, labeled the verdict \"surprising, bizarre to say the least,\" and President Basescu was no less critical. \"It\'s inadmissible,\" he was quoted as saying after a public gathering of Ministry of Interior officials, adding that \"Twenty-two million people in Romania saw what happened to Teo Peter. This would mean that what twenty-two million people saw was untrue.\" Some analysts were already speculating on the possible impact on our broader bilateral relationship, including the agreement on U.S. use of military facilities on Romanian territory.
3. (C) The Ambassador has reached out to the most senior levels of government, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, to reiterate our deep regret over the car accident that killed the Romanian musician and to encourage coordination of U.S. and Romanian responses in coming days. The Embassy at all levels has sought to defuse this new wave of public anger over the tragic accident and now over the verdict and sentencing.
Basescu: Concerned about Defense Agreement
4. (C) President Traian Basescu, in a brief telephone conversation with the Ambassador on February 4, expressed \"surprise\" with the outcome. Describing the verdict as a fait accompli, Basescu stated simply that it \"will not be easy to continue justifying U.S. soldiers here under the same circumstances.\" The Ambassador expressed remorse for the accident and understanding of Romanian shock at the verdict. He committed to do all he could to ensure that nothing like the December 4 accident happens again. He also committed to do everything possible to prevent the verdict from jeopardizing our strong bilateral relationship.
5. (SBU) Although the Ambassador has reached out to Prime Minister Tariceanu, the latter is traveling in Turkey and as of the evening of February 1 the two had not spoken by phone. Tariceanu has both condemned the verdict and pledged GOR assistance to Peter\'s family if it seeks to file a civil case against VanGoethem.
FM Ungureanu: A \"Firestorm\" in Public Opinion
6. (C) FM Ungureanu expressed appreciation to the Ambassador for reaching out to the MFA and agreeing to meet so soon after the verdict. During an expanded meeting that included DCM and PolChief, Ungureanu described the verdict as a potential catalyst for a \"firestorm\" of negative Romanian public opinion against the U.S., something which could damage BUCHAREST 00000178 002 OF 002 our common goals and objectives. He said he could not understate how serious the issue is for all who care about Romania\'s bilateral relations with the U.S. He urged the Ambassador to speak publicly and openly to the media that afternoon, to avoid the perception that the U.S. was \"hiding in a dark corner.\" He committed to coordinate with the Embassy on Romania\'s public approach and asked for informal ideas and advice on a common strategy for moving ahead.
7. (C) At the same time, Ungureanu stressed that the GOR could not afford to appear passive in response to the \"unjust verdict.\" He wondered aloud whether the GOR or Teo Peter\'s family could pursue civil actions; or if there were other ways that the family, and by extension the Romanian government, could be satisfied that justice had been served. Ungureanu added that he planned to call Secretary Rice this afternoon (meaning February 1 a.m. in Washington), and that he would raise the same concerns that he had raised with the Ambassador. Our common task was \"not to dig deeper\" but to \"see how we can heal.\"
8. (C) In a separate private conversation with the Ambassador, Ungureanu expressed explicit concern that the verdict would have an impact on the bilateral agreement on military facilities, which is in now before the Romanian parliament for ratification. He was worried not only about the pernicious effects of criticism from the political opposition, but also from the general public. In Ungureanu\'s view, it was important that U.S. authorities at all levels, including within the Department of Defense, demonstrate appropriate compassion and concern as well as understanding of the many difficulties posed by the verdict. He urged not only a prompt response in this regard, but thorough consideration of how to conscientiously help ensure the U.S.-Romania bilateral relationship remains on track.
Comment: Challenges Following the Verdict
9. (C) Regardless of the actual verdict against VanGoethem, in the court of Romanian public opinion he was guilty as charged. For many, more shocking still was the sentence, which political commentators and our government interlocutors consider risibly light, both a a slap on the wrist for the Marine sergeant and a slap in the face to Romania. Nor could the timing of this unexpected turn of events have been more inopportune given that the Romanian parliament currently has before it for debate and ratification the signed agreement on military cooperation between the U.S.. Both ordinary Romanians and government officials will scrutinize the U.S. reaction in coming days and months. It is essential that the U.S. government, on a combined basis, in both capitals, do the maximum we possibly can to express our regret over the whole VanGoethem matter, respond in an open and respectful way to Romania\'s need to manage this crisis here in a politically plausible way, and reassure Bucharest of our continued reliability as a friend and partner.