BERLIN — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday forcefully defended the handling of terror suspects in U.S. custody around the world, saying they had provided intelligence that has saved both European and American lives.
As she began a four-nation trip to Europe, Miss Rice addressed for the first time reports that Washington maintains secret CIA prisons in Europe and uses the territory of countries there to transfer detainees to places where they can be tortured.
Last week, Miss Rice received a letter from the European Union asking for an explanation of the reports of secret prisons and overflights, which caused an uproar across the Continent.
ABC News, citing unidentified current and former CIA agents, reported last night that 11 “high value” al Qaeda terrorists had been held at a former Soviet air base in Eastern Europe and were spirited to a site in North Africa just before Miss Rice’s arrival in Europe.
The secretary refused to confirm or deny any of the stories, and instead urged the Europeans to trust the United States in the war on terrorism, which “challenges traditional norms and precedents of previous conflicts.”
She admitted that “for decades, the United States and other countries have used ‘renditions’ to transport terrorist suspects from the country where they were captured to their home country or to other countries where they can be questioned, held or brought to justice.”
But, she insisted, the United States and other democracies involved in the process comply with the international Convention Against Torture.
“The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture,” Miss Rice said in a five-page statement, which she read at Andrews Air Force Base before flying to Berlin.
“The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured,” she said.
During the flight, she told reporters that one message for her trip was that the war on terrorism is “very intelligence-based,” and that governments can better protect their people if they cooperate with Washington.
“This is a war in which intelligence saves lives,” she said. “Some of the plots [that have been foiled] were not headed for America but for Europe.”
Although declining to discuss the secret prisons, first reported last month in The Washington Post, Miss Rice suggested that all U.S. actions are done with the local government’s knowledge.
She then challenged those governments that do not cooperate with U.S. intelligence to face up to their “responsibilities … to protect their citizens.” She also advised those that work with the United States but are reluctant to admit it to decide for themselves how to handle their public opinion rather than point the finger at Washington.
“It is up to those governments and their citizens to decide … how much sensitive information they can make public,” she said.
Franco Frattini, EU justice and home affairs commissioner, last week threatened any member states that host such facilities with suspension of their voting rights in the 25-nation organization.
He said a secret jail would violate the European Convention on Human Rights, and that prisoner-transport flights without the knowledge of local authorities would violate international aviation agreements.
Miss Rice, who is also scheduled to visit Romania, Ukraine and Belgium, declined to say whether any European laws had been broken by U.S. intelligence activities, repeating that the Bush administration “upholds” U.S. law and treaty obligations.
Amnesty International, the human rights organizations, said yesterday that six planes used by the CIA for such renditions have made about 800 flights in or out of European airspace.
In Berlin, government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the German Cabinet has a list of more than 400 overflights and landings by planes suspected of being used by the CIA.
“We are hoping that all of the facts will be discussed” when Miss Rice meets with the new chancellor, Angela Merkel, today, he said.