Attempting to stem fierce European criticism of US treatment of suspected terrorists, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, admitted that Washington had carried out "renditions" of suspects - but never in violation of other country's sovereignty, and never where it was believed that the individual might be tortured.
Speaking yesterday in the US before leaving for a week-long trip to Europe, Ms Rice presented the Bush administration's clearest statement yet on an issue that has generated fresh uproar after claims the CIA operated secret prisons in eastern Europe and elsewhere.
In her statement, Ms Rice refused to comment specifically on such prisons, saying Washington "cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations," and assumed that other countries shared that view.
Originally, the Secretary of State's trip was intended to continue the process of rebuilding transatlantic relations badly frayed by the Iraq war.
But it will be dominated by the linked issues of torture and allegations that the US routinely ignores international law in its conduct of the "war on terror".
Ms Rice arrived in Germany last night, her first stop, where the new government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded the US give a detailed accounting of some 400 flights organised by the US military that either landed in, or overflew, Germany. Ms Rice will then travel to Romania - one of the countries where human rights groups say a secret CIA camp was located.
After a week of intense discussion of how to counter the criticism, the administration has now decided that attack is the best means of defence. Ms Rice took no questions after her sttement yesterday. Instead, she insisted that US efforts were "sometimes misunderstood".
The truth, she said, was that terrorism was a universal threat, and all governments had a fundamental duty to protect their citizens. She said that, four years after the attacks of 11 September, "most of our populations are asking us if we are doing all we can to protect them" from future attacks. Before the next one, "we should all consider the hard choices that democratic governments must face".
And the best way of dealing with the danger, the Secretary of State said, was "to work together." In a unusually detailed defence of "rendition," Ms Rice said the process - where suspects were moved from the country of their capture to another country for questioning, detention or trial - was "a vital tool" for tackling transnational terrorism.
The process long predated the arrival of the Bush administration. Ramzi Youssef, the mastermind of the World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, had been brought by "rendition" to the US, and the French government had used the same technique in 1994 to transport Carlos Ramirez, the "Jackal," from Sudan to France, where he was tried and jailed.
A major part of the statement was aimed at dispelling the impression - fostered by Vice-President Dick Cheney recently - that Washington had an ambiguous attitude to the use of torture. The US, Ms Rice said, "does not tolerate, permit, or condone torture under any circumstances".
Torture and conspiracy to torture were crimes under US and international law and the US did not employ "rendition" to move a suspect to a country where he might be tortured. Nor, the Secretary of State added in words directed to Germany, did Washington use "the airports or airspace of any country" to transport a prisoner to a country where he or she might be tortured.
With her repeated insistence that the US acted in co-operation with its partners and did not violate sovereignty, Ms Rice may have thrown further fuel on the fire. Assuming hundreds of rendition flights have taken place, and CIA-run camps do indeed exist, Ms Rice's remarks imply the host governments or their intelligence services knew about them and turned a blind eye or co-operated.Reuse content