Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States prohibits all its personnel from using cruel or inhuman techniques in prisoner interrogations, whether inside or outside U.S. borders. Previous public statements by the Bush administration have asserted that the ban did not apply abroad.
U.S. obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, extend as "a matter of policy" to "U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States," Rice said here at a news conference with Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko.
The remarks were her latest effort during a week-long European trip to convince skeptics that the United States is committed to fair and decent treatment of terrorism suspects. At every stop of her trip, she has faced reporters' questions about torture at a time of widespread outrage in Europe over reports that the CIA has operated secret prisons in East European countries.
In Washington, supporters of an anti-torture bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war, greeted her statement as a sign that the White House was abandoning claims that the measure could complicate the fight against international terrorism.
Rice's remarks are "an important and very welcome change from their previous position, which I believe has cost us dearly in the world and does not reflect our nation's laws or our values," Sen. Carl M. Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "I also believe that the administration's position on this matter up to now has endangered our troops, because others might point to our practices to justify their own."
Even after Rice made her remarks, administration aides turned aside suggestions that she was breaking new ground. In Washington, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, told reporters that Rice was only expressing existing policy.
McClellan's comment appears to be based on a written answer that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales gave in late October to a question posed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In answer to Question 158, Gonzales wrote that the administration's policy is to abide by provisions barring cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment "even if such compliance is not legally required, regardless of whether the detainee in question is held in the United States or overseas."
Those words, buried in the document, passed largely unnoticed and the new policy was never publicly articulated until Rice spoke in Kiev on Wednesday.
The McCain bill, passed by the Senate, would put into law a ban on torture and lesser forms of abuse. Congressional aides said Wednesday that conferees were poised to accept the McCain language on detainees and that they expected the measure to pass easily in the House of Representatives.
The administration is "accepting reality" that Congress supports a broad ban on mistreatment of prisoners, one aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Members of Congress in both parties have come to fear that opposing McCain's language could be seen as supporting torture, the aide said.
Critics of the administration have charged that it has played deceptive word games with descriptions of its interrogation policy. Rice's statement appeared to narrow the ambiguity and bar interrogation techniques that the CIA has been permitted to use in select cases, such as sexual humiliation and "waterboarding," in which the prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.
Still, analysts were trying to sort out its practical meaning Wednesday. "The administration has shown itself a number of times capable of changing course and speed in response to actual or feared legal developments, be it in the courts or in Congress," said Eugene Fidell, a Washington specialist on military law. "This may be another illustration of that tendency."
The United States is a signatory to the U.N. convention in which nations refuse to engage in torture and pledge to "undertake to prevent" cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment methods "that do not amount to torture."
The Bush administration has long said that the U.S. government will not engage in torture. But it has argued in the past that restrictions on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment do not apply outside U.S. territory.
Before she left for Europe on Monday, Rice issued a detailed statement on U.S. policy on treatment of prisoners, intending to dampen the furor on the continent. She said, among other things, that "the United States government does not authorize or condone torture of detainees." But she did not define torture.
While flying to Europe on Monday, Rice was asked by a reporter whether her statement was intended to close the loophole concerning techniques permissible abroad, as McCain's bill would do. She first ducked the question, saying that the United States interprets these treaties and abides by its interpretation. Later in the briefing, she added: "Our people, wherever they are, are operating under U.S. law and U.S. obligations."
For two days, her aides declined to clarify whether her comment in the briefing signaled a change from the administration's previous public position. But before the news conference Wednesday, Rice's aides indicated to reporters traveling with the secretary that she was eager to clear up the issue.
What was different about Rice's statement Wednesday was that she spoke not only of torture but also the broader range of tough interrogation tactics -- and then said the ban would apply universally.
For weeks before Rice's statement here, a private debate was underway in the Bush administration. Rice's team has pushed for a more restrictive standard, often in conflict with Vice President Cheney's office, where people have argued for exempting the CIA from restrictions in McCain's bill.
Government sources familiar with the debate said the White House has also opposed a separate proposal that the Defense Department adopt in its directives language similar to Article 3 of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners. It prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."
A military probe into FBI allegations of abuse at the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, found that interrogators had led a detainee around by a leash tied to his chains, placed female underwear on his head and made him stand naked in front of a female interrogator.
The probe found that the tactics did not constitute torture or "inhumane" treatment, which are barred. But it found the tactics to be "degrading and abusive," which would be barred by the Pentagon directive and McCain's bill.
Fidell, the military law expert, said Wednesday that U.S. officials should always have been operating under standards prohibiting abusive treatment. "It's clear that this was a preposterous legal argument, which they now have apparently abandoned," he said.
White reported from Washington.