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Rice defends rendition, calls it vital tool against terror

Says US does not transfer suspects to be tortured

WASHINGTON -- After weeks of mounting pressure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a forceful, detailed statement yesterday to justify the controversial practice of ''rendition" -- the covert capture and transfer of terrorism suspects without the involvement of a court -- while insisting that the United States does not send anyone to a country to be tortured.

''The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured," she said. ''Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."

But Rice's remarks, made at Andrews Air Force Base just before she left for Berlin, defied European calls for an answer to the question of whether the CIA operates secret prisons in parts of the former Soviet Union. The allegation, first published in the Washington Post last month, prompted widespread outrage and parliamentary inquiries across the continent.

Rice's response to the criticism was designed to shore up flagging support for the Bush administration's tactics without signaling any significant change in course.

''The United States, and those countries that share the commitment to defend their citizens, will use every lawful weapon to defeat these terrorists," Rice said, adding, ''sometimes these efforts are misunderstood."

Rice highlighted the fact that Europe is also a target of terrorism, and that US intelligence has saved European lives.

''What I would hope that our allies would acknowledge is that we are all in this together," she said. ''Very often these are not plots that are headed for the United States; they're headed for someplace in Europe."

Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said Rice would not give more details on the issue in private meetings with European leaders, or in a written response to a European Union inquiry.

Rice's remarks yesterday were her most detailed public statements on the secretive practice of rendition, which has sparked outrage in Europe for more than a year. The Washington Post article prompted fresh calls for inquiries into CIA actions in Europe.

In Sweden, the practice caused an uproar after two Egyptian asylum seekers were sent to Egypt, where they later said they were tortured during interrogation. In Italy, an Italian judge issued an arrest warrant for about two dozen CIA operatives after prosecutors concluded that they had kidnapped a Muslim imam. In Germany, public anger followed the five-month detention of a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who was rendered to an Afghan detention facility where he said he was beaten and abused.

Yesterday, Rice called rendition a ''vital tool in combating transnational terrorism." She said renditions take place with the cooperation of the countries where suspects are captured, and that suspects are flown elsewhere for legal reasons.

''For decades, the United States and other countries have used renditions to transport 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," she said.

''We must track down terrorists who seek refuge in areas where governments cannot take effective action, including where the terrorists cannot in practice be reached by the ordinary processes of law," Rice said.

But she did not explain why courts in Sweden, for instance, would not have been effective, or why the United States chose to send suspects to countries like Egypt and Syria, where torture is well documented.

Rice said the United States is a country of laws and that ''torture and conspiracy to commit torture, are crimes under US law, wherever they may occur in the world."

But human rights groups said yesterday that there was mounting evidence that the administration authorized tactics which are widely viewed as torture.

''I haven't heard Rice or anyone else in the Bush administration dispute that they are authorizing mock drowning, sleep deprivation, stress positions," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First.

Amnesty International announced yesterday that the group had obtained the flight logs of six planes that have been used in CIA renditions, making 800 flights in and out of European airspace.

Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the logs were ''irrefutable proof that the United States is 'disappearing' people into secret facilities where they are held incommunicado without charge, trial, or access to the outside world."

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been working to outlaw the practice of rendition, said the Bush administration is ''seeking backdoor mechanisms to skirt our obligations to prevent torture."

Even some conservative scholars who agree with the Bush administration's aggressive tactics viewed Rice's remarks with some skepticism, arguing that the administration would have gathered more support for its policies by being open about them sooner.

''It is fair to say the administration is unnecessarily secretive," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. ''There are times where it would be much better for them to be much more open, and to assume that people can handle the facts of life in a post 9/11 world."

But Rice made a strong case for secrecy yesterday, telling reporters, ''There are certain things that we simply can't talk about." She said governments have a right to keep their cooperation with the United States secret.

''They have a sovereign right to make that choice," she said.

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