US to Europe: Detentions avert terror

Secretary of State, now on a European tour, insists that the US adheres to laws on detainees.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has a message for Europeans: Before they protest about alleged US secret jails on their territory, they should remember that terrorism threatens them, too.

That's a primary argument Secretary Rice made Monday, in a lengthy statement on United States conduct in the war on terrorism. Intelligence gathered during interrogations of terrorism suspects has "saved innocent lives - in Europe as well as the United States," Ms. Rice said before departing for a week-long European tour.

In essence, the secretary of State appeared to be trying to redirect the debate over reported secret detention centers away from the nature of the centers themselves and toward possible benefits - namely, defense against terror attack.

But the negative effect of the images of US mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, plus the unpopularity of the Iraq war among many Europeans, may make it difficult for her to win over the region.

"The real issue here is that no one trusts the United States anymore," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

This issue exploded into public view on Nov. 3, when The Washington Post reported that the CIA had set up a covert network of prisons overseas to hold high-value terrorism suspects. At times, the web contained as many as eight sites, said the Post - some of them in now- democratic East European countries.

The news story did not name the countries in question. The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, however, has issued a report alleging that CIA-linked airplanes traveling from Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 made direct flights to remote airfields in Romania and Poland. In addition, news reports in Germany and Great Britain have alleged that CIA planes at least transited through bases in those countries.

Human rights groups have denounced the practice of holding prisoners incommunicado, calling it illegal and an invitation to torture. The European Union has demanded that Washington address the issue, in part to allay fears that the US has installed some sort of secret gulag in the middle of a solidly democratic area of the world.

As she left the US, Rice did not directly mention whether secret prisons exist. That would be highly classified data; in addition, to unilaterally expose any such network would be to risk embarrassment for host nations.

Instead, Rice emphasized the positive. This meant both alleged benefits from intelligence gleaned from detainees, and an insistence that the US complies with domestic and international law in regards to such detainees.

Terrorists are often captured far from their homes, in lawless areas. They can be dangerous people. In addition, some may "have information that may save lives, perhaps even thousands of lives," said Rice.

In this context, the US does practice "rendition," said Rice, meaning the practice of taking detainees to third countries.

But in doing so the US complies with all laws and treaty obligations, including those under the Convention Against Torture, said Rice. The US does not transport detainees for the "purpose of interrogation using torture," nor does it transport them to any country where US officials believe the detainee might be tortured.

In addition, the US has respected "and will continue to respect the sovereignty of other countries," said Rice. This last reference may be interpreted as a warning to European leaders to refrain from appearing to be shocked by operations they might have known were occurring all along.

Critics of US actions were unswayed by Secretary Rice's logic. They decried the fact that her statement did not directly address the existence of these so-called black sites.

In refusing to confirm or deny the prisons' existence the US is "mocking international law, they are mocking the rule of law that the US values," said Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International.

Moreover, torture can be defined in many different ways. Methods of interrogations allowed under current US rules, using cold temperatures, intimidation, and other techniques, might be defined as torture by some, say critics.

Allowing an international inspection of US detention centers overseas might defuse much of the current criticism, say some. "They have to allow access to these places," says Professor Hannum of Tufts.

It is also possible that hidden in the details of Secretary Rice's argument is a softening of US positions. In saying that the US complies with obligations of the Convention Against Torture, Rice may have retreated somewhat from the administration's long insistence that it would not be bound by international restrictions on treatment of detainees.

In another indication that the White House may be softening its stand in this area, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said in a broadcast interview on Sunday that the administration is no longer strongly opposed to the ban on degrading and inhumane treatment of detainees passed by the Senate in October.

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