Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seeking to dampen a furor in Europe over the CIA's secret detention and transport of suspected terrorists on European soil, on Monday defended U.S. actions there as preventing terrorist attacks and strongly suggested that operations have occurred only with the cooperation of relevant governments.
At Andrews Air Force Base before boarding her plane for a week-long swing through Europe, Rice said the United States always respects the sovereignty of foreign countries when conducting intelligence operations within their borders. Aides said that was diplomatic code meaning that the United States does not act without first getting permission.
Rice's carefully crafted statement was the Bush administration's most comprehensive explanation yet of its policy on transferring terrorism suspects across international borders. U.S. officials hope her remarks will ease concerns raised in European capitals after The Washington Post reported on Nov. 2 that the CIA has operated a clandestine prison system in Eastern Europe and other countries.
Rice did not confirm or deny the existence of the prisons, saying, "We cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations." But she implied that governments in Europe were aware of U.S. intelligence operations there, including assistance in a practice known as "rendition," in which suspects are secretly transferred from countries without formal extradition proceedings.
At one point, Rice appeared to acknowledge that top detainees directly connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been held outside the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies, she said, have gathered information from a "very small number of extremely dangerous detainees," including planners of the Sept. 11 hijackings and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. The United States "has fully respected the sovereignty of other countries that cooperate in these matters," she said.
Intelligence cooperation between the United States and European countries has "helped protect European countries from attack, helping save European lives," Rice said.
The Post reported last 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 could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.
The Post article has spurred a series of probes across Europe into the existence of prisons and flights through European airspace by CIA aircraft that critics say are transporting prisoners. Last week, citing the uproar, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote Rice on behalf of the European Union, asking for "clarification" of news reports that suggested "violations of international law." Rice said her statement was essentially the text of a reply she would send to Straw.
ABC News reported Monday night that the United States had closed two prisons and transported 11 top al Qaeda detainees out of Europe before Rice's arrival. The report could not be confirmed, and the CIA and the State Department declined to comment.
Rice began her trip to Europe here in Germany, where on Tuesday she will seek to build relations with the new German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel before flying to Romania and Ukraine. Later she is to attend meetings at the headquarters of the NATO alliance in Belgium. Throughout her trip, aides expect her to be dogged by questions about the CIA prisons.
Werner Hoyer, a member of the German Parliament's foreign policy committee, said Rice's statement would put European governments on the defensive to explain what they knew about joint counterterrorism operations in Europe.
"She's trying to throw the ball back into the European field, especially the German field," Hoyer, a member of the opposition Free Democratic Party, said in an interview. "She's saying that fighting terrorism is not just an American problem but a German problem. This practice of renditions is perhaps in keeping with U.S. law, but there are indications that perhaps it is not compatible with German law."
On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that former interior minister Otto Schily had been told by the U.S. ambassador to Germany of a bungled rendition of a German citizen in 2004 and that he had kept the case quiet at the request of the Americans. Schily stepped down last month when Merkel's government came into office. He has not commented on the report.
Ulrich Wilhelm, the German government's chief spokesman, told reporters Monday that the new government was trying to figure out what top officials knew about the rendition case. He said officials hoped Rice would provide more information about CIA flights when she meets with Merkel.
Speaking to reporters as she flew to Berlin Monday, Rice said she would seek to refocus the debate by reminding Europeans that intelligence is essential to battling shadowy terrorist networks. "Ultimately if you want to stop attacks, you have to use intelligence to do it," she said.
Rice spoke emotionally of appearing before the 9/11 commission and facing questions herself about counterterrorism. "It is exceedingly hard when you look at the families of people who lost their lives in a terrorist attack," she said. "You wonder to yourself: Did I do everything that I could?"
In her statement, Rice defended the practice of rendition as a "vital tool" that is recognized by international law and that has been used by many countries, including the United States, since before the Sept. 11 attacks. Reports of U.S. renditions have sparked controversy and judicial probes in Italy and Spain, but Rice noted that France used rendition in 1994 to remove the legendary terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" from Sudan for prosecution.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Rice's reference to pre-9/11 renditions is misleading because in the earlier cases people were rendered for prosecution. He said the Bush administration is doing the opposite, taking prisoners away from jurisdictions that respect rule of law. Rendition allows interrogation "indefinitely without judicial interference," he said.
Rice also asserted that the United States does not transport terrorism suspects "for the purpose of interrogation using torture" and "will not transport anyone to a country when we believe he will be tortured." She added that "where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."
"The United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees," she said.
The United States is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, in which nations pledge to refuse to torture and pledge to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. The Bush administration, however, has argued that the obligations concerning cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment do not apply outside U.S. territory.
The Post article reported that CIA interrogators in the overseas sites have been permitted to use interrogation techniques prohibited by the U.N. convention or by U.S. military law. Asked about this apparent contradiction, Rice told reporters: "Our people, wherever they are, are operating under U.S. law and U.S. obligations."
Any violation of U.S. detention standards is investigated and punished, Rice said in her statement, citing the prison abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib "that sickened us all."
Correspondent Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.