Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go on the offensive next week to rebut European concerns over reports of a secret CIA prison system in Eastern Europe, making the case during a five-day trip to Europe that intelligence cooperation between the United States and Europe is essential to prevent future attacks, U.S. officials said.
After weeks of being pummeled in the European media over reports about clandestine prisoner transfers and secret detention centers, administration officials have concluded that they need to put European governments on notice that they should back off and begin to emphasize the benefits of intelligence cooperation to their citizens.
Administration officials have been careful to neither confirm nor deny the existence of the prison system, first disclosed by The Washington Post on Nov. 2, and Rice has no plans to acknowledge it. The Post report spurred a series of probes across Europe, and administration officials are bracing for Rice to be hit with a barrage of questions as she tours Europe.
The Post reported 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 times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and 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 nations and elsewhere and make them targets of retaliation.
The European Union earlier this week formally asked Rice for "clarification" on media reports suggesting "violations of international law" in order to "allay parliamentary and public concerns." Rice's response, which is being drafted by a team of administration officials, will form the core of the administration's defense. It probably will be released Monday when Rice departs for Europe, officials said.
But administration officials have publicly hinted at their emerging strategy, which a variety of officials have privately discussed in recent days. "The key point will be 'We're all in this together and you need to look at yourselves as much as us,' " one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Rice's response has not been completed. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
Officials said Rice's tone will not be accusatory. Instead, she will emphasize that European governments do not have intelligence links with a rogue nation -- but instead, the United States -- and that such cooperation is necessary in the common fight against terrorism.
Spokesman Sean McCormack, answering reporters' questions on Wednesday, suggested this line of defense when he asserted "it is the responsibility also of governments to explain as clearly as possible to their publics and publics around the world what it is that they are doing in fighting the war on terrorism."
McCormack added that citizens would not want "their government to do something that would undermine that government's ability to fight and win the war on terrorism."
Administration officials previously have said the United States has abided by U.S. laws and complied with "international obligations." The problem for the administration has been that many European officials have suggested the secret prisons violated European laws -- and intelligence officials agree with that, saying that is one reason the operations have been kept secret.
To rebut that concern, Rice will introduce a new concept, also suggested by McCormack, that the United States "respects the sovereignty" of its allies. Administration officials said this language is code for saying that these intelligence operations took place with the full knowledge of relevant European government or intelligence officials -- without actually confirming specific intelligence programs.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the United States does not violate human rights and is viewed as a model around the globe. "When it comes to human rights, there is no greater leader than the United States of America, and we show that by holding people accountable when they break the law or violate human rights," he said. "We show that by supporting the advance of freedom and democracy and supporting those in countries that are having their human rights denied or violated, like North Korea."
After the Post report, Human Rights Watch cited flight records of aircraft allegedly linked to the CIA to suggest sites in Poland and Romania were used. Both nations have denied they housed secret CIA prisons.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.