How Condi Will Tackle 'Secret Prisons' Furor

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Defending the Administration: Rice

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe this week looks set to be dominated by the furor over allegations about CIA activities on European soil in relation to terror suspects. The issue has been the focus of a mounting clamor for answers in the weeks since the Washington Post first alleged that the CIA may have maintained secret prisons in Eastern Europe, culminating in a formal request by the European Union for an explanation. But sources tell TIME that Secretary Rice plans to come out swinging, shifting the focus back to the responsibilities of Europe’s governments in the war on terror.

Suspicions are rife, but proof still lacking, that some of the more than 300 landings in Europe by aircraft linked with the CIA since 9/11 were flights "rendering" suspected al-Qaeda terrorists to countries where torture loosens tongues. The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch claims that Poland and Romania may have hosted secret interrogation camps, something both countries deny. And the furor only intensified when the initial response of the Bush administration was to neither deny nor confirm the allegations.

"She is going to hear quite a lot of concerns from all quarters," says a top European Union diplomat in Brussels, where Secretary Rice will attend a dinner with EU and NATO counterparts, a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, and a number of bilateral meetings. "This is becoming a major problem."

Indeed it is — and not just for Washington. Opposition politicians in Germany and the United Kingdom, the two most frequent destinations according to an analysis of flight logs by the Guardian, have already put their fingers on the damned-either-way dilemma of governments who either acquiesced to the secret flights or didn't know about them. "I cannot imagine how something like this should happen without (the government) knowing," thundered Gregor Gysi, head of Germany's Left Party, this week in the Bundestag. "International law has to be used to limit the power of the strongest." The idea that European governments might have been complicit in holding detainees in secret challenges Europeans' sense that they hold the moral high ground over the U.S. on issues of human rights.

No wonder governments have been more circumspect in their response. After the new German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, discussed the matter with Rice in Washington earlier this week, his boss, new German Chancellor Angela Merkel, took the carrot approach where her predecessor might have preferred the stick. "I think we can trust ... that the US government is taking European concerns seriously," she told parliament, "and that quite soon (it) will clarify the recent reports on alleged CIA prisons." British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, formally asked Rice to address "parliamentary and public concerns" over the flights.

But sources in Washington tell TIME that a flinty Condi Rice plans to be very assertive about the U.S. government's responsibility to act in the interests of its own security and its citizens in her reply to the EU request,expected early Monday before she takes off for Europe. Aides indicate that she will exhort European leaders to remind their own constituents that they, too, are targets of jihadists and that close cooperation with the US is essential to prevent more attacks like those suffered by Madrid and London.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern reportedly said after a Washington meeting with Rice that she expected U.S. allies to take it on trust that the U.S. does not allow abuses of prisoners. But the administration appears to be distinguishing between abuse — which it denies — and holding “ghost” detainees in secret prisons abroad, which it has not denied, but only refused to confirm on the record or give details. Indeed, U.S. officials hint that at least some foreign officials have been in the know on movements of CIA aircraft, secret holding facilities or other operations, those governments may be getting a message that they'd better not protest too much. But its not clear whether Rice will explicitly make that point in her private meetings. She probably doesn't need to.

But for the European public, secret prisons in themselves — and not simply the question of whether any abuses may have occurred in them — is a red line. So while Secretary Rice may be out to convince her European colleagues that they're better off letting well enough alone on the issue, now that it’s being discussed in the public square, turning a blind eye may no longer be possible.