By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005
BRUSSELS, Dec. 9 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's attempt this week to defuse the crisis with European governments over U.S. detainee policy did not start well. At first, she was confronted with skeptical questions from the news media and appeared to retreat in a fog of statements her staff then struggled to explain. By the end of the trip, however, European officials had praised her and declared her explanations satisfactory, allowing Rice to return home Friday on a positive note.
Rice laid the groundwork for such an outcome months ago, when she invested considerable effort in restoring transatlantic ties frayed by tense differences over the invasion of Iraq. Having experienced both the gloomy postwar period and the era of good feelings with Rice, European foreign ministers showed little appetite for letting the debate fester about torture of prisoners.
Not a single government minister questioned Rice directly about the existence of secret CIA prisons during an one-hour discussion of the topic at a private dinner here Wednesday, according to officials who attended. The European ministers emerged with a chorus of praise, saying they wanted to put the issue behind them.
Rice faced a difficult rhetorical challenge on her trip -- and it may be some time before it is certain that her message resonates beyond her European counterparts.
Many European media criticized the foreign ministers for so readily accepting Rice's declaration that the United States is pledged to respect international law. "She spoke too often like a defense lawyer rather than a candid friend," the London-based Economist said of reports that the United States had sent suspects to third countries for interrogation. "As she well knows, the difficult question is whether America has shipped them to places where they may be tortured."
As Rice flew home on Friday, meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross renewed a demand that the Bush administration provide access to detainees sent by the United States to undisclosed locations around the world.
On her trip, Rice needed to signal that U.S. policy had changed without directly saying so, since that would appear to confirm that the administration had once condoned repulsive interrogation techniques. She had to suggest that European governments endorsed the CIA's seizure and transport of terrorism suspects and had also approved the secret prisons, without confirming the prisons' existence. In Germany, she had to hint that the CIA had made a mistake in abducting a German citizen and shipping him to a brutal Afghan jail, without confirming the incident or admitting a mistake.
Rice sought to change the context of the debate. The European public and news media had become convinced the Bush administration condones torture. U.S. officials were irritated that European governments, in the face of the public outcry, had made little effort to defend either the United States or the importance of prosecuting the war against terrorism -- even though both Madrid and London have been struck by terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001 , attacks.
Moreover, on a continent where the word "intelligence" evokes thoughts of secret police, Rice wanted to make the case that gathering intelligence is essential to thwarting potential attacks. In both public and private venues, Rice warned European officials that unless they cooperated on counterterrorism, they might one day face their own version of the 9/11 Commission.
Minutes before leaving for Europe last Monday, Rice read a lengthy statement that sounded as if it had been written by a committee of U.S. government lawyers -- which it had been. The statement did not quiet the media storm. Indeed, 29 of the 38 questions reporters asked Rice during her European stops concerned the U.S. treatment of detainees. After the relentless questions -- and the realization that the issue was overshadowing her trip -- she consulted with the White House and issued a new statement.
In Kiev, Ukraine, Rice seemed to state that the administration no longer exempted U.S. personnel at home or abroad from abiding by the provisions in the U.N. Convention Against Torture that prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. This helped her in Europe, but it spawned confusion in the United States, where it was viewed variously as a new policy, a loophole-ridden feint or an effort to box in administration hard-liners opposed to restrictions on interrogation.
Rice's European trip had been planned before the controversy erupted, but it fell to her to articulate U.S. policy after the European Union wrote to her last week seeking clarification.
Her aides realized the issue would overwhelm the positive stories they had sketched -- building a relationship with the new German government, winning access to a Romanian air base, bolstering democratic forces in Ukraine and expanding NATO's presence in Afghanistan. But they felt European officials would appreciate Rice's willingness to respond to the outcry personally.
"I'm quite happy that Condoleezza Rice went to Europe," Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said after meeting President Bush at the White House on Thursday. "She took the heat."