Rice Defends U.S. Tactics on Terrorism Suspects

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a weeklong trip to Europe, where she is expected to defend U.S. tactics regarding terrorism suspects. Before she left, Rice responded to allegations that the CIA has flown terror suspects through European airports and is holding detainees in secret.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gone on the offensive in the debate over how the US deals with terrorism suspects. Rice has begun a weeklong trip to Europe, and this morning she issued her response to allegations that the CIA has flown terror suspects through European airports and is holding detainees in secret. We hear about concerns in Rice's first stop, Germany, in just a few minutes. First, this report from NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Outlining her case to the Europeans, Secretary Rice said this is a new kind of war.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice which were designed for different needs. We have to adapt.

KELEMEN: Without confirming reports of secret CIA prisons, the secretary said that US intelligence agencies have handled the questioning of what she described as a small number of extremely dangerous detainees.

Sec. RICE: The intelligence so gathered has stopped terrorist attacks and saved innocent lives in Europe as well as in the United States and other countries. The United States has fully respected the sovereignty of other countries that cooperate in these matters.

KELEMEN: This was the most comprehensive statement by a Bush administration official on this issue to date. Back home, human rights groups complain she's not answering their underlying questions. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch called Rice's remarks `an appalling counterassault.'

Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Watch): The administration has not denied the allegation and, in fact, has turned around and used thinly veiled counterthreats to say, `Don't criticize us. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.'

KELEMEN: Human Rights Watch is among the organizations that allege the US has been holding terrorism suspects illegally and incommunicado. Sifton says there were nuances in the way Rice formulated her response, particularly in this passage.

Sec. RICE: The United States does not transport and has not transported detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. 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.

KELEMEN: As Sifton points out, Rice spoke in the present tense when she denied the US uses European airports to move detainees around. Sifton was also struck by the way she denied transporting detainees for the purpose of torturing them. He says the administration has set a high bar on what torture is.

Mr. SIFTON: Waterboarding--this technique in which detainees are forced under water or have water poured over their head to make them think they're drowning--this is essentially a mock execution and, as such, amounts to torture. And yet the CIA has denied that it's torture. The administration has a problem defining torture.

KELEMEN: Human rights activists had problems with other parts of Rice's remarks, including her defense of transporting terrorism suspects, a practice called rendition.

Sec. RICE: Rendition is a vital tool in combating transnational terrorism. Its use is not unique to the United States or to the current administration.

KELEMEN: The secretary cited as an example of rendition the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, a man now serving a life sentence in the US. Deborah Pearlstein of Human Rights First argues the Bush administration uses renditions differently.

Ms. DEBORAH PEARLSTEIN (Human Rights First): No one's ever brought to justice; no one's ever put on trial. They're just taken away and locked behind bars and subject to cruel treatment. And the idea of justice for them, or for any of the rest of us, is nowhere in the picture.

KELEMEN: A defender of the Bush administration's policy, University of California, Berkeley law Professor John Yoo, says this raises another question.

Professor JOHN YOO (University of California, Berkeley): Whether we should think of 9/11 as, you know, just purely subject to criminal law rules or whether it's also something that is subject to the rules of war.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice said international law allows a state to detain enemy combatants for the duration of hostilities. But Pearlstein of Human Rights First says that refers to people picked up on a battlefield, not, as she put it, `kidnapped on the streets of Milan.' Italian authorities are, in fact, pursuing such a case. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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