Global Policy Forum

Rice Fails to Clarify US View on Torture


By David Holley and Paul Richter*

Los Angeles Times
December 8, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that an international ban on torture applies to U.S. personnel overseas, in a statement that was apparently meant to ease growing concerns but that sowed new confusion about controversial American policies on treatment of terrorism suspects.

Rice said that "as a matter of U.S. policy," American obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which also bans cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, applies to U.S. personnel both in the United States and around the world.

Rice's remarks came amid complaints from Europeans about what they see as harsh and possibly illegal American treatment of terrorism suspects overseas. Rice's comments were interpreted by some U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates as a sign that the Bush administration was giving ground in the face of international and congressional pressure, but it was unclear whether her statement heralded any change in policies or practices. The confusion underscored how much suspicion and uncertainty surrounds the subject, even among lawmakers, analysts and advocates who follow the subject closely.

On a tour of Europe that began Monday, Rice has been engulfed by criticism over reports that CIA planes used airports on the continent as stopovers while transporting prisoners to secret interrogation sites. Rice has insisted that U.S. personnel don't use torture, and has argued that American counter-terrorism efforts on the continent help protect Europeans from extremist attacks. Yet, questions about the behavior of U.S. personnel abroad have lingered, fed in part by the revelation of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; the denial of civilian court trials to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and the acknowledged American policy of "extraordinary renditions," in which terrorism suspects are seized in one country and flown to another nation for interrogation.

Rice's latest comments left much unclear. She did not try to define banned prisoner interrogation measures or specify what, in the American view, constitutes cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. She also did not address restrictions imposed by the torture convention on U.S. security contractors. Some saw her statement, at a news conference in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as a shift from a legal opinion offered by U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, who said in Senate testimony this year that U.S. personnel overseas were not legally bound by the U.N. convention's restrictions on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

The United States is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Gonzales, however, told the Senate that the administration considered the restrictions on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment to be tied to acts illegal or unconstitutional under U.S. law, but that American law did not protect non-Americans overseas. Rice did not repudiate Gonzales' legal opinion but said U.S. policy was to not use cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment on captives.

That stand is not a new one. Although the administration does not believe U.S. officials overseas are legally obligated to observe the ban on cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, it is nonetheless government policy to adhere to it, officials say. Gonzales wrote in October in response to a questionnaire from the Senate Judiciary Committee: "It's the administration policy to abide by the requirements barring cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment even if such treatment is not legally required, regardless of whether the detainee in question is here in the United States or overseas," said a U.S. official familiar with the response.

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, speaking of Rice, said Wednesday: "Her statement is a statement of policy, and it's been the U.S. policy." Still, some saw her comments as a shift from recent stances taken by Bush administration officials. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, said Rice's comments "represent a reversal from the administration's position on the convention up to now. It is an important and very welcome change from their previous position."

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said the statement left many questions unanswered.

"I'd like to be able to say, 'I strongly welcome this, good for Condi Rice,' " said Tom Malinowski, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington. "But if the administration is not willing to clarify this and say it's a change in the policy Alberto Gonzales articulated … then I don't know."

Another group, Human Rights First, said U.S. officials in the past had refused to address whether techniques such as simulated drowning, sleep deprivation, religious humiliation and solitary confinement were covered by prohibitions against mistreatment. "Does your statement now mean that these practices are prohibited as a matter of law and policy?" the group asked in a statement. The White House has opposed an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would set new anti-torture restrictions barring "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" of prisoners by all U.S. personnel in all circumstances.

Vice President Dick Cheney has lobbied Congress to at least exempt the CIA from the tougher rules, which passed the Senate on a 90-9 vote in October. McCain is a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who endured torture. CIA interrogators at overseas locations reportedly have been permitted to use techniques banned for use by the U.S. military. The McCain amendment would make the Army Field Manual the authority on interrogation techniques for all U.S. government agencies.

The administration, arguing that existing laws and regulations are adequate to prevent the torture of prisoners, has expressed concern that adoption of the McCain amendment could signal to detainees that they had little to fear during interrogations. But officials have been in negotiations with McCain to seek a compromise on his measure, which has not yet been passed by the full Congress. One high-profile case that Rice has confronted this week is that of Khaled Masri, a German national of Lebanese descent. He filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in northern Virginia alleging that American intelligence operatives mistakenly abducted him in December 2003 and held him for five months, subjecting him to torture and mistreatment. On Tuesday, without mentioning the Masri case directly, Rice said in Berlin that "any policy will sometimes result in errors, and when it does we will do everything we can to rectify them." German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that she understood the comment to apply to Masri.

U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour warned Wednesday that the U.S.-declared war on terrorism was eroding a global ban on torture. In remarks at the United Nations in the run-up to Human Rights Day on Saturday, Arbour urged Rice to further clarify the U.S. policy on torture and rendition. "Pursuing security objectives at all costs may create a world in which we are neither safe nor free," Arbour said. "This will certainly be the case if the only choice is between the terrorists and the torturers."

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton immediately responded, saying Arbour should be concentrating on "real" human rights abusers such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar — not the United States.

Holley reported from Moscow and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall, Bob Drogin and Greg Miller in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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