Why the CIA Detainee Issue Dogged Condi in Europe

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Making Her Case: Rice at a NATO meeting in Brussels

Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe this week was overshadowed by criticism of the CIA's alleged use of clandestine flights and bases in Europe to transport and imprison terror suspects. But there was one welcome respite: When the Secretary of State touched down in the small former communist state of Romania to announce that the U.S. would be opening four new military bases there, she was greeted with open arms. "The acceptance by the Romanian people of the American military presence is the most precious thing to have happened in the relations between our two states," the pugnacious Prime Minister, Traian Basescu, said during the visit, before promising that Romania's tiny contingent in Iraq would stand by the U.S. as "long as it takes." One newspaper called the base announcement the most positive development in Romania since World War II. Another editorialized that that it was a "gift" that Romanians had "awaited with more anxiety than the arrival of Saint Nicholas."

The gushing reviews come after several years of negotiations in which the Pentagon has sought to pare down its larger presence on bases in Western Europe in exchange for smaller outposts, or a "lighter footprint" as one Pentagon official said, in the new democracies of Eastern Europe. The new bases have the virtue, in Washington's view, of being both more flexible and closer to current hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia. Romanians are also, for the most part, happy to see more U.S. boots on the ground, which would not be true of U.S. allies in Western Europe. With a watchful eye on Russia and Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime, Romanians are both grateful to the U.S. for its support during the Cold War and anxious for the additional security that could come with enhanced military ties.

Rice's stop in Romania, however, failed to dispel criticism from other quarters. She is under fire over a series of reports that the CIA established clandestine bases on European soil to imprison suspected terrorists for questioning, and transported those detainees through European airports. Rice's declaration—in what some see as a departure for U.S. policy—that U.S. treaty obligations prohibiting cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment extended to U.S. personnel "wherever they are" helped quiet some of those concerns. So, too, did her allowance, unusual for a Bush Administration member, that the U.S. may have made mistakes in the course of pursuing its war on terror. But the reports are putting pressure on some erstwhile allies. Germany's new foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and its former Interior Minister, Otto Schily, could face parliamentary investigations for failing to reveal that they knew about a German national, Khaled el-Masri, who German prosecutors say was abducted allegedly by the CIA in a case of mistaken identity and flown to Afghanistan where he was imprisoned and interrogated for five months. El Masri said he was tortured, and is now suing the CIA and its former director George Tenet over the incident. Some German opposition figures say Schily and Steinmeier tacitly cooperated with the U.S. policy of secret "renditions" by agreeing to remain silent at Washington's behest. A parliamentary investigation could be launched as early as next week. A separate Council of Europe investigation, meanwhile, is looking into claims that the CIA had bases in several eastern European countries.

Romania is one of the countries alleged to have had secret CIA detention facilities on its territory. Romanian officials originally denied that any secret bases had ever existed on their territory, but more recently, after the former Prime Minister acknowledged that the Romanian government did not have access to all parts of a base used by the U.S. during the Iraq conflict, they have agreed to launch a parliamentary inquiry. Since the country aspires to join the European Union as early as 2007, and the existence of "dark bases" housing "ghost prisoners" would contravene European human rights standards, Romania may be forced to take a closer look at the activities of its U.S. ally on its soil—with more U.S. bases now slated to open and much of the EU uneasy about U.S. practices, the pressure on Romania for transparency is only going to increase.