Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave the Bush administration’s most comprehensive accounting yet of U.S. rules on treatment of prisoners in the war on terrorism Wednesday, but her assurances left loopholes for practices that could be akin to torture.
Rice said cruel and degrading interrogation methods are off limits for all U.S. personnel at home and abroad. But she gave no examples of banned practices, did not define the meaning of cruelty or degradation, did not say if the rules would apply to private contractors or foreign interrogators and made no mention of whether exceptions would be allowed.
“As a matter of U.S. policy,” Rice said during a press conference with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the United Nations Convention Against Torture “extends to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the U.S. or outside the U.S.”
Rice’s remarks follow debate in the United States over the government policies for holding and questioning detainees, including Bush administration statements that a ban on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment did not apply to Americans working overseas. In practice, that could mean CIA employees could use methods in overseas prisons that would not be allowed in the United States.
“It’s about time,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Rice’s remarks. “Shame on us that it took so long for the administration” to make such a determination, she said.
Rice’s remarks came amid strong and sustained criticism among European allies and others around the world over techniques such as “waterboarding,” in which prisoners are strapped to a plank and dunked in water, made to fear they may be drowned.
A report by the CIA’s inspector general has discussed 10 methods used by CIA personnel known as “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” Former intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say some techniques include exposing prisoners to cold, depriving them of sleep or forcing them to stand in stressful positions.
In an interview last week on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CIA Director Porter Goss said, “What we do does not come close to torture.” But he would not provide any details.
At every stop on her European tour this week, Rice has faced questions about U.S. practices in the pursuit of terrorists, including whether the CIA has run secret prisons on European soil or mistreated prisoners during clandestine flights in and out of Europe.
The European Union and several European countries have requested an explanation, and the continent’s top human rights organization is investigating.
Using precise legal language, Rice referred to the 1994 U.N. treaty that defines and bans torture and also prohibits certain treatment that doesn’t meet the legal definition of torture. That includes practices that human rights organizations say were used routinely at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Several hundred Muslim men have been held without charge there for nearly four years.
The CIA’s inspector general reported last year that some of the agency’s treatment of terrorism detainees could be cruel, inhumane or degrading under the U.N. torture convention. The United States signed the treaty, although Congress made some of the pact unenforceable in U.S. courts.
Although the Pentagon’s written policy prohibits cruel or inhumane treatment domestically or in other countries, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld can approve case-by-case exceptions.
Human rights organizations and critics in Europe have called the Bush administration interpretation a loophole for treatment almost indistinguishable from torture. Prisoners suspected of links to terrorism have been chained to the floors of their cells, made to urinate on themselves, denied sleep and led to believe they could be attacked by dogs.
Rice’s words Wednesday built on President Bush’s statement that the United States does not practice torture, and on her own previous remarks about U.S. obligations.
The administration said Rice was clarifying policy, not drawing new lines. “It’s existing policy,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
Rice’s statements Wednesday reflect tensions between the White House, Congress and the State and Defense departments over the treatment of detainees.
Vice President Dick Cheney led a lobbying effort to halt or make exceptions to Senate-approved legislation by Vietnam torture victim Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would forbid cruel treatment of terror suspects anywhere.
Though the White House initially threatened to veto McCain’s proposal, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley has been negotiating for a compromise.
Rice’s comments about interrogation techniques came as an AP-Ipsos poll found that a majority of Americans and most people in Britain, France and South Korea say that torturing suspected terrorists is justified at least in rare instances. Most people in Spain and Italy opposed all torture, while those in Canada, Mexico and Germany were split.