Not again. Just when the deep freeze in US relations with some European countries is thawing, a cold front blows in. Once more, it originates in the war on terrorism, but this time it's not about invading Iraq, but about CIA doings in Europe.
By now, it almost doesn't matter whether secret CIA detention centers housing high-value terrorist suspects in Eastern Europe even exist, or if so, are legal; or whether the transport of detainees to and through Europe is in accord with international law, a question the European Union raises. The month-long controversy over the alleged centers and the transport policy, known as rendition, is once again sowing mistrust of Washington among some European governments, parliaments, and citizens - especially in Western Europe. This can hardly enhance valuable European assistance in the war on terrorism.
Questions about US treatment of terrorist suspects in Europe are meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her trip to Germany, Romania, Ukraine, and Belgium this week. She's vigorously defending US antiterrorist tactics, pointing out they've saved American - and European - lives, and that in carrying them out, the US is abiding by its own and international laws. Above all, she stresses, the US does not torture, nor send detainees via rendition to countries where the US believes they will be tortured.
But the Bush administration faces a credibility problem. After documented prisoner abuse cases in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere, Europeans have trouble believing that prisoners were not mistreated at the two supposed Eastern European sites (ABC reported Monday that the prisons were shut down last month, and the 11 detainees sent to a CIA site in north Africa). A newly reported case relating to a Lebanese-born German national wrongly detained by the US only reinforces their suspicions.
And, many Europeans wonder, what does the US mean when it denies using torture? Should there be an asterisk after every mention of that word? Because the CIA does allow "enhanced interrogation techniques" - including shaking, striking, subjecting detainees to cold, and making them believe they're drowning - all of which sure sound like torture. It baffles Europeans (as it should Americans), that the White House has sought an exemption for the CIA from an approved Senate amendment that would ban "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners."
Secretary Rice also stretches credibility by refusing to confirm or deny the alleged network of overseas CIA detention centers. She says that would compromise intelligence.
The administration must go beyond this blanket phrase and explain how confirming these alleged facilities would actually hurt intelligence - so essential to fighting terrorism.
If the US is acting legally and humanely, why might it keep undercover a detention network where the Red Cross can't visit and detainees have not even limited legal recourse?
Until the administration more thoroughly explains itself on this issue and also actively supports the Senate torture ban, its credibility problems will persist in Europe - and at home. It must have support on both fronts to win this war.