The Bush administration pledged yesterday to respond to a formal inquiry from the European Union over reports of covert CIA prisons for al Qaeda captives in Eastern Europe, acknowledging for the first time that the controversy over the secret prison system has upset European allies.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, writing on behalf of the European Union, sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a letter yesterday seeking "clarification" about the matter, the British Embassy said. Franco Frattini, the union's top justice official, warned Monday that any E.U. country discovered to have hosted CIA prisons will face "serious consequences," including losing its E.U. voting rights.
The controversy over the prisons has threatened to overshadow Rice's planned five-day trip to Europe next week, and she used a meeting yesterday with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's new foreign minister, to respond to the growing clamor for answers.
"The United States realizes that these are topics that are generating interest among European publics as well as parliaments, and that these questions need to be responded to," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters, adding, "These are certainly legitimate questions."
McCormack said Rice assured Steinmeier that the United States has not violated either its own laws or international treaties, but he sidestepped questions about whether the prisons -- the existence of which he did not confirm or deny -- violate European laws. Intelligence officials and legal experts have said that the CIA's internment practices would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries.
The Washington Post reported early this month that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe as part of a covert prison system that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe. The Post did not identify the Eastern European countries at the request of senior U.S. officials, who said the disclosure could disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and make them targets of retaliation.
The report spawned a frenzy of investigations and news reports in Europe, dismaying administration officials who have painstakingly tried to repair U.S.-European relations this year after they ruptured over the Iraq invasion. "There is a tone in a European press, an anti-American sentiment, that I have not seen in a year," said one senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
McCormack stressed to reporters that questions about the prisons should be viewed in a "larger context" of the battle against terrorist networks: "The terrorists know no boundaries. They know no regulations or rules or they don't comply with any laws."
After the Post report, Human Rights Watch cited flight records of aircraft allegedly linked to the CIA to suggest that facilities in Poland and Romania were used. Poland is an E.U. member and Romania is a candidate for admission; both countries have denied they housed secret CIA prisons.
An investigator for the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights body, reported last week that he had received the information from Human Rights Watch. The investigator, Dick Marty, proposed to visit suspected sites, examine satellite imaging and analyze aircraft movements.
Rice will visit Germany, Romania, Ukraine and NATO headquarters in Brussels, and U.S. officials expect questions about the prisons to dog her at every stop.
European commentators have questioned how the United States can celebrate democracy in Ukraine when reports about the prisons appear to undermine its own traditions of freedom. In Romania, Rice will sign a bilateral defense cooperation agreement, formally permitting U.S. troops to use Romanian bases as part of a redeployment of forces in Europe.
Straw's letter was not publicly released. The United Kingdom holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and a British Embassy spokesman said Straw wrote the letter at the request of several European delegations. The letter seeks "clarification on the allegations that the CIA has terror camps in Eastern Europe," said the spokesman, who under British tradition was not identified. "They remain allegations, but nevertheless it is right to ask the United States for more information."
Rice and Steinmeier also discussed reports of transport flights for al Qaeda suspects by CIA aircraft in German airspace, McCormack said. German media have reported that some CIA planes landed at six German airports, a potential embarrassment for the government of Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has hoped to improve relations with the United States.
U.S. officials are also keen to build ties after experiencing a rocky relationship with Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel's openly anti-Bush predecessor. Hours after Steinmeier's visit with Rice, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick flew to Berlin for two days of talks with top officials in the new government, including Merkel. Rice also will meet with Merkel in Berlin next week.