Europeans Search for Conciliation With U.S.

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 9, 2005

BRUSSELS, Dec. 8 -- European foreign ministers attempted to make peace with the United States on Thursday over the controversy concerning treatment of terrorism suspects, with many saying they were satisfied with visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's explanations of U.S. policy.

But lingering concerns were evident when Dutch officials said they would press to set up a prison of their own in Afghanistan so that any suspects captured by Dutch troops there would not be transferred to Guantanamo Bay or other American facilities.

The controversy over secret CIA prisons and U.S. detainee policy dominated a gathering at NATO headquarters Thursday at which a plan to send as many as 6,000 alliance troops to patrol southern Afghanistan was approved, relieving some of the burden on U.S. forces.

The Netherlands tentatively plans to supply about 1,200 troops for the mission, which will bring NATO soldiers for the first time into the most dangerous part of Afghanistan since U.S. forces invaded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. NATO already heads a peacekeeping force in more secure parts of the country.

Rice had dinner with 31 of her European colleagues Wednesday in Brussels. Aides were not included, which officials said allowed for a fuller airing of concerns over U.S. policy without political posturing.

Some ministers, such as Bernard Bot of the Netherlands, had indicated they still had deep concerns over U.S. policy, despite a week-long effort by Rice to defuse the tensions. But afterward, ministers reported that they were satisfied with the U.S. position.

"Secretary Rice has covered basically all of our concerns," Bot said, adding that if the secret prisons existed -- which he called "pure speculation" -- Rice "has made it quite clear" that the United States did not violate international law in such facilities.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added that Rice "has reiterated that in the United States international obligations are not interpreted differently than in Europe."

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer declared at a news conference that Rice had "cleared the air" and that he considered the issue closed. "You will not see this discussion continuing" at NATO, he said.

Rice left Washington for Europe on Monday knowing that she would be pressed for explanations about whether the United States was maintaining a secret prison system in Europe in which suspects were being cruelly interrogated.

She issued a lengthy statement before she left, but her answers to reporters' inquiries during the trip sometimes seemed to add to the confusion over whether the United States barred certain interrogation tactics overseas. The Bush administration in the past has argued that the U.N. Convention Against Torture -- which the United States has ratified -- barring cruel, inhuman or degrading interrogations did not apply overseas.

Rice, who returns to Washington on Friday, appeared to help her case by issuing a statement in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on Wednesday that on its face removed ambiguity: She referred to U.S. obligations to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and said the ban extended "to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States."

Some legal and human rights experts in the United States pointed to possible loopholes in her statement, such as whether the reference to "personnel" also applied to U.S. contractors or whether President Bush still asserted the right to selectively opt out of international obligations.

At a news conference Thursday, Rice offered a further refinement that appeared to address these questions: "We are a nation of laws," she said. "The President of the United States is not going to ask American citizens to violate U.S. law or to violate our international obligations."

Rice did not directly answer a question about whether any loopholes remained in her statements. She also said she could not guarantee that abuses would not occur again despite her assurances that U.S. policy is clear. "Will there be abuses of policy? That's entirely possible," she said. "Just because you're a democracy it doesn't mean that you're perfect."

The deployment of NATO troops to southern Afghanistan is set to begin in May and will mark a significant expansion of NATO's involvement in the country. NATO forces have to this point operated in relatively quiet areas, such as provincial towns and the capital, Kabul, while U.S. and allied forces took on the job of active combat against Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. But now the NATO troops, led by the British, are likely to engage insurgents, who have been stepping up attacks.

Bot said the Netherlands had negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government that ensures that no prisoners captured by the Dutch and turned over to the Afghans will face the death penalty. The Dutch also received assurance that NATO guidelines regarding detainees in Afghanistan will be strictly enforced. Under those rules, the International Committee of the Red Cross must be notified six hours after a suspect is captured and the suspect must be released or sent to a facility within four days.

Two weeks ago, after reports of secret CIA prisons stirred a political and news media furor in Europe, the Dutch government began to press for its own prison facility in southern Afghanistan. Dutch officials said that after reports of conditions at Guantanamo, they wanted to be sure that any suspects they captured would be monitored by the Red Cross and never end up in U.S.-run facilities. The Bush administration has refused to allow the Red Cross access to all detainees.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company