Week in Review: Rice, Torture Policy, Iraq

Topics for analysis include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to Europe; her explanations of U.S. policy regarding torture and the war on terrorism; upcoming Iraq elections; and the Patriot Act.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): The United States does not engage in torture, doesn't condone it, doesn't expect its employees to engage in it. Will there be abuses of policy? That is entirely possible because just because you're a democracy, it doesn't mean that you're perfect.

SIMON: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking from Brussels on Thursday where she attended a meeting with NATO officials and ministers of the European Union. NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And Secretary Rice also visited Germany, Romania and Ukraine during that trip, but persistent questions and whatever else you wanted to talk about about the people who were concerned about the treatment of detainees and the existence of what has been reported of secret CIA prisons in Europe. In fact, 29 of the 38 questions reporters asked her were on that. What did she say? Did that assuage people?

SCHORR: Well, that's what we just heard. What she said is that we don't do it, and if we have done it, we won't do it anymore. But we--we're not sure we do it and, you know, she's--a very good job of obfuscating a very, very delicate issue. This has been in Europe worse for America since--everything except since the Abu Ghraib discoveries. However, apparently, she did a very good job of it. By the time they reached Brussels for their meeting, she had been in Germany. She'd been to a couple of places on this four-day trip, and by the time they reached Brussels and sat down, apparently they were now willing to accept her assurance that everything was going to be all right from now on, leaving a little bit of, `Never mind asking me what's happened in the past. That's the past.'

SIMON: Let me ask you about the American public 'cause opinion polls show the public seems to be knotted up about this. Thirty-eight percent of Americans believe torture is often or sometimes justified. Thirty-six percent say that torture can never be justified at a time when I guess that it doesn't seem to be a theoretical question for many Americans that somebody might possess that one nugget of information that could interrupt a terrorist attack.

SCHORR: Well, that's exactly right. I suppose you could ask the average American, `Faced with a situation where you have somebody that you know knows about the next bombing that's going to take place and won't tell you about it in order to save thousands of other people, would it be all right to torture?' These are very abstract issues the way they're put up. The way they have happened is that a guy gets snatched off a street, put on a plane for somewhere. It turns out he's the wrong person in the first place. So they dump him somewhere on a hilltop in Albania, and this is really not a very great way to make friends.

SIMON: Let me turn now to events in Iraq because the parliamentary elections there coming up on Thursday, December 15th, and they certainly seem to be--a sweep up in violence in that country this week, roadside bombs and kidnappings. Can we assume these are targeted at frightening people away from casting their votes?

SCHORR: Oh, I think so. There was also a spike in the violence before the January 30th election of the temporary parliament. And apparently this is going to be rising into a crescendo between now and December 15th, and it's a pretty important moment both for Iraq, of course, in the first place but also for American policy. Because if that election is carried off successfully and if the Sunnis are willing to join in it, then there's hope on the horizon, but you sit here with fingers crossed.

SIMON: President Bush gave a second major speech this week about the direction of his Iraq policy. This was to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: Last week there was the widely reported speech, of course, at Annapolis. There are going to be two more speeches on Iraq we are told before the Iraqi elections next week. Do you believe these speeches, these presentations are having some perceptible impact with the American public?

SCHORR: Well, apparently not very much because if you try to look at the standing of the president in the polls these days, it is up a little bit to 40 percent from 35 percent mainly because of an improvement in the economy, but still, 53 percent of Americans judging by these polls think that the war shouldn't have been fought or shouldn't be fought now and that we should get out of it, so that--the thing is that this Iraq crisis will be a drag on the president until he finds some real solution.

SIMON: What about Iraqis? Are the speeches in part intended for Iraqis to reassure them about American resolve?

SCHORR: It's very difficult. The administration is trying to say two things to the Iraqis and to the rest of the world, and the things are almost contradictory... One is we will not cut and run. We will not allow ourselves to be pushed out of there. We'll stay as long as we're needed. Yet on the other hand, we would really like to begin drawing troops out. Some of them we're sending there just for the elections. They'll start coming out right away. And as to the rest, well, if we see them being well-trained, that is, the Iraqi forces, and it looks as though they can do something, well, maybe we will think of beginning to move out of there. In other words, we're staying but don't worry about it. Pretty soon, we'll be going.

SIMON: The president's approval rating is apparently up this week to 40 percent from 35 percent a month ago. How do you read that increase in public approval?

SCHORR: Well, it's simple. I mean, if you take the factor--believe he can manage the economy--and it seems clear that the improvement in the economy was responsible for most, if not all, of the increase in the president's rating.

SIMON: The former members of the 9-11 Commission graded Congress and the president this week on the response both bodies made to the 41 recommendations the commission made in its final report last summer. Most of the grades they doled out now were D's and F's. What were their major complaints?

SCHORR: Well, I think the major overall complaint was that after these very careful recommendations have been made by the commission, not many of these recommendations were being carried out, especially, for example, this question of communication. They didn't have communication between firemen and police or anybody else at 9/11, and, again, communication was lacking at the time of the recent floods. And so they say, `Well, why can't you get a radio channel and put something together so that you can have some communication between people which, you know, would be crucial at a time like that?' Also complaints about too much pork barrel use of money that was meant to improve security and that kind of thing. It's depressing.

SIMON: On the other hand, is this one of those weeks when we must also observe that there has been no terrorist attacks on US soil since September 11th, 2001, and are Congress and the administration entitled to say, `Well, we must be doing something that has been correct'?

SCHORR: Scott, that is what I call famous last words. I mean, it is--didn't have an airplane crash, we must be doing something very, very right. Just accept it and pray that it continues. I'm afraid when it comes to when and whether the terrorists are going to launch something against the United States, I would not venture the slightest prediction.

SIMON: Congress votes next week on whether to extend the Patriot Act that's set to expire on December 31st. There's opposition among some senators in both parties on the question of civil liberties. Do you think it'll be extended?

SCHORR: Well, I think they have the votes to do it. They've got a compromise which at least has given them a conference report. The question now is only whether somebody--and there are one or two talking about it--tries to filibuster on the issue. But, apparently, you know, with a series of compromises, part of the Patriot Act will be extended for seven years, another part only for four years. It's a very, very carefully worked-out document to get something that at least a conference between the two houses could accept. It'll certainly go through the House. As to whether it gets through the Senate, well, it's a close thing.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: My pleasure.

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