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Stonewalling on CIA Abuses in Europe


Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2005

Faced with mounting allegations that the CIA has been holding terror suspects in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, the European Union had to react. In a formal letter sent last week -- a politely worded model of diplomatic nicety -- E.U. presidency representative Jack Straw asked the United State to provide information regarding possible violations of international law in the transport or detention of these suspects in Europe.

The request was being made, Straw noted, in the hope that the U.S. response would "allay parliamentary and public concerns."

The U.S. response, delivered on Monday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, contained a vigorous defense of counter-terror tactics but not much of a description of them. Rice confirmed none of the pending allegations; nor did she deny them. Except in the most general sense, she offered Europeans no new information at all.

Secret CIA Prisons

It has been known for quite some time now that the CIA is holding so-called high value terrorism detainees - suspected senior al Qaeda operatives - in incommunicado detention abroad. The U.S has never said where these detainees are being held, and it has denied the International Committee of the Red Cross all access to them. According to numerous anonymous CIA sources quoted in the press, several of the detainees have been subject to abusive techniques such as "waterboarding," by which a detainee is made to believe he is drowning.

What sparked the current uproar was not the fact alone of the secret detentions, but rather new allegations, made public last month, that the detainees were being held in Eastern Europe.

The Washington Post published a front-page story on November 3 that described a string of hidden CIA-run prisons, without specifying the eastern European countries in which they were located. Human Rights Watch, at the same time, released information showing that CIA airplanes traveling from Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 had made direct flights to remote airfields in Poland and Romania.

With this new information, the abstract question of U.S. abuse of detainees suddenly became much more concrete. The possibility of European knowledge of, and complicity in, abuses roused a number of national and regional bodies to investigate. And the European Union itself began asking questions.

The Rule of Law

Secretary Rice's public statement thus came after nearly a month of European speculation. It was meant to convince the Europeans, in Rice's smoothly reassuring words, that "we believe in the rule of law."

The United States, Rice declared, would use "every lawful weapon" at its disposal to defeat terrorism. But it would not engage in torture, she promised, and it would not break international law.

So far, so good. Yet Rice failed to mention that the working definition of torture that the U.S. apparently employs is absurdly and offensively narrow. It is public knowledge that the CIA has subjected detainees to waterboarding, mock executions, extended sleep deprivation, and other abusive methods that the United States condemns when used by other countries.

CIA director Porter Goss, when questioned recently about such abuses, even referred to waterboarding as a "professional interrogation technique." Asked to define torture, after claiming that the U.S. does not engage in it, he said that it's "in the eye of the beholder."

During her statement on Monday, Secretary Rice also asserted that it was U.S. policy to conduct interrogations in accordance with the Convention Against Torture and its prohibition on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But again, her claim was essentially meaningless. According to the Bush administration's bizarre reading of the convention, it is under no obligation to refrain from such treatment when interrogating non-Americans abroad.

Finally, Rice did not deny, or even address, the central concern raised by European countries: that the CIA has allegedly held prisoners in secret locations in Europe. She did not explain why the administration still cannot disclose where senior al Qaeda suspects are held, or why it still denies the Red Cross access to these prisoners -- in some cases, four years after their arrest.

Spinning Abuses

In the end, despite their carefully-worded entreaty, the Europeans learned next to nothing about what CIA was doing on their territory.

They had asked for clarification, Rice gave them justification. They wanted facts; Rice gave them spin. What remains to be seen is whether the Europeans will continue to press the United States or will settle for this non-responsive response.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney based in New York. Her previous columns on the "war on terror," the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects, and the physical abuse of detainees are available in FindLaw's archive.

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