The European Union cited possible "violations of international law" by the United States in requesting that the Bush administration clarify media reports and "allay parliamentary and public concerns" about secret CIA prisons and the transporting of al Qaeda suspects in Europe, according to a letter from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The brief letter, written by Straw because the United Kingdom currently holds the E.U. presidency, makes no accusations and carefully refers only to media characterizations. It does not mention the myriad investigations launched by governments and European institutions since The Washington Post disclosed last month a secret CIA prison system operating in Eastern European and other countries. The British government has not released the letter, but it was provided by diplomatic sources.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who has declined to confirm or deny existence of the CIA detention centers, said the administration would respond "to the best of our ability." He set no timetable for a response, but European officials said they hope Rice makes public her reply before she departs next week on a five-day swing through Europe.
"I am writing to you on behalf of the European Union following media reports suggesting violations of international law in the alleged U.S. detention or transportation of terrorist suspects in or through E.U. member states," Straw wrote, noting that it had been recently discussed by E.U. foreign ministers. "The reports have attracted considerable parliamentary and public attention. The E.U. would therefore be grateful for clarification the U.S. can give about these reports in the hope that this will allay parliamentary and public concerns."
The diplomatic repercussions of the reports have been far-reaching. Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot even suggested last week that the Netherlands' contribution of 1,100 soldiers to Afghanistan could be in jeopardy if the Americans "continue to beat around the bush" on the CIA prisons. He said the Dutch -- generally staunch U.S. allies -- will have to weigh the interests of fighting terrorism on one hand and respect for human rights on the other, adding that there "lies the point beyond which we will not go."
However, Bot did not repeat that linkage yesterday when he met with Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried to discuss the NATO deployment, U.S. officials said.
One senior European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the disclosures, said European leaders understood that the United States was constrained from discussing specific intelligence operations. But he said Europeans were looking for "credible assurances" that no questionable activities are taking place on European soil.
On Tuesday, when Rice met with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, she stressed that the United States has not violated either its own laws or "international obligations," McCormack said. But European officials said that statement -- with its vague language -- did not go far enough to dampen the media and political frenzy that has erupted in Europe over the reports. One official said pledges that specific international treaties have not been violated would be helpful.
David J. Luban, a Georgetown University law professor, said the administration generally has spoken in "a deep code" about how it treats detainees, making Rice's comments to Steinmeier difficult to evaluate.
The United States, for instance, ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, in which countries pledge to "undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture. . . ." But Luban said the administration has asserted that this provision does not apply outside U.S. territory. The administration has also suggested that the president, as commander in chief, has the constitutional authority to override international obligations regarding torture.