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Reduced to double talk in defending torture policy

By HELEN THOMAS

12/11/05 "Chron.com"
-- -- How long will the American people tolerate the shaming of their nation by the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and the spiriting of detainees to secret prisons outside the United States?

Is it any wonder that other countries believe that America has lost its moral purpose by surrendering our well-earned reputation for human rights?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is facing the music on her quick trip to Germany, Russia, Romania, Ukraine and NATO headquarters in Brussels.

She had hoped to mend relations that have been strained by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Instead, to her exasperation, she has been hounded with questions about whether the United States has maintained secret prisons in two European nations — as reported by the Washington Post. She has steadfastly refused to answer yes or no, thus providing inadvertent confirmation of the report.

In a departure statement before she left, Rice tried to define the perimeter of acceptable questions. "We cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations," she declared.

She stressed that other nations are cooperating and the United States would not transgress their sovereignty without permission.

At the same time, she confirmed that the United States has used "renditions" — the secret transport of terrorist suspects from the country where they were captured "to their home country or to other countries where they can be questioned, held or brought to justice."

Rendition is a "vital tool" in combating international terrorism, she said.

The whole process raises the question of why U.S. officials believe that interrogators in another country would be more successful than American questioners in obtaining information from the person being "rendited." And that raises the possibility that the other questioners could use torture to get answers.

Not so, says Rice, speaking very carefully.

"The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country where we believe he will be tortured," she asserted.

Get this: "Where appropriate," she added, "the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured." That assumes that some of the destination countries have the reputation for torturing people.

She has a sad mission as she naively tries to defend the indefensible among Europeans, some of whom have long memories of living under inhumane governments.

German officials confronted her with a long list of overflights by CIA airplanes, apparently carrying detainees to clandestine prisons.

At a White House briefing last Tuesday, press secretary Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly why we sent prisoners to other countries to be questioned.

He evaded providing a direct answer, saying: "I'm not going to talk further about intelligence matters."

Nor did he respond to questions on whether there is U.S. oversight of those we send away to make sure they are not tortured.

While Rice insists that the United States does not tolerate torture, many studies by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights First have come to the opposite conclusion.

Torture under the law is described as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Waterboarding or mock drownings, sleep deprivation, beatings, shackles and other horrors apparently do not fall into the administration's definition of torture.

This is the same administration that is threatening a presidential veto of pending legislation that would explicitly prohibit the use of torture. The White House led by Vice President Dick Cheney insists on an exception for the CIA.

The ban is being pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was tortured when he was a prisoner of war in the Vietnam era. Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, is now seeking a compromise.

How do you compromise torture? Fortunately, McCain says: "No deal."

Human Rights First — a human rights advocacy group — charged that Rice's departure statement continued to fuzz up U.S. obligations under the U.N. convention against torture.

As for detainees, Rice said, "We must treat them in accordance with our laws, which reflect the values of the American people," she added. "We must question them to gather potentially significant, life-saving intelligence. We must bring terrorists to justice wherever possible."

Rice has yet to master the art of diplomacy but she certainly excels in double talk.

Thomas is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for the Hearst Newspapers. - hthomas@hearstdc.com

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