Parsing secret prisons

December 08, 2005

If it's Thursday, then it must be Belgium, and it's doubtful that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will put to rest European concerns over reports that the United States has secretly detained terrorism suspects in Eastern Europe. Ms. Rice departed on her weeklong, four-country trip with her anti-torture remarks at the ready. But her insistence that the U.S. "does not authorize or condone torture of detainees" didn't convince the Dutch or European Union leaders or some of her German hosts with whom she visited Tuesday. And that's because Ms. Rice can't be frank about the alleged detentions. Candor would exacerbate tense relations between the U.S. and its European allies over the war on terror and further sully America's reputation on treatment of detainees.

Throughout her trip, Ms. Rice has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the secret detentions. She says she doesn't comment on "intelligence" matters. The secretary has chosen her words carefully in reiterating the Bush administration's adherence to international laws against torture. She defended its anti-terrorism operations, insisting that the U.S. has respected the "sovereignty" of its partners in the war on terror and strongly suggesting that some allies fully understood the parameters of U.S. intelligence measures. In Berlin, the case of a German citizen mistakenly abducted by the CIA prompted Ms. Rice's pledge that the U.S. would work as swiftly as possible to rectify any mistake. Again, she never admitted that the United States had indeed been mistaken about Khaled al-Masri, who was kidnapped in Macedonia and flown to a secret prison in Afghanistan, where he says in a lawsuit that he was tortured. Questions about CIA activities followed Ms. Rice to Romania, another alleged site of a secret facility. But Ms. Rice stayed firmly on message.

Her parsing shouldn't be excused for diplomacy, not when the subject is clandestine prisons and torture has been alleged. European leaders have to be able to credibly assure their people that America isn't doing its dirty work in their backyards. The Bush administration can't afford more anti-American hostility on the continent, not with Iraq in such turmoil. And the American public deserves to know whether secret prisons are being operated in its name.

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