Prague, 7 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Until today, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had interpreted the major international treaty against torture as applying only to actions conducted on U.S. territory.
But facing mounting concerns in Europe and from politicians in the U.S. Congress, Secretary of State Rice signaled today what many observers say amounts to a policy shift. Rice was speaking at a news conference in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
While official U.S. policy bans torture, the administration has previously argued that it is allowed to use harsh methods that it believes do not constitute torture -- defined by the CAT as "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" -- against non-American suspects outside the United States.
"As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States obligations under the [UN Convention Against Torture, or CAT] which prohibits, of course, cruel and inhumane and degrading treatment, those obligations extend to U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States," she said.
Human rights groups say the United States had used its previous interpretation of the CAT treaty to justify harsh interrogation methods on terrorist suspects being held at facilities outside the borders of the United States, such as in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rice's comments come amid an uproar in Europe over the use of such interrogation techniques, as well a new report that the CIA used European airports to transport terrorist suspects to secret prisons in Eastern Europe, as well as to other countries. They reportedly include places like Egypt and Pakistan, which the U.S. State Department has cited for using torture.
The question is whether Rice's comments truly signal a shift in U.S. policy.
Robert McGeehan believes they do. McGeehan is an expert in U.S. foreign and security policy with Chatham House, a London-based policy institute.
"I think Secretary Rice, and indeed the administration now, in its second term, is much more sensitive to relations with its European allies and to criticism," McGeehan said. "And I regard this as a wise policy move in the sense that it is at least believed -- whether it's true or not -- that the United States has committed quite a few violations of the Convention Against Torture. And this is one good way of putting a cap on that, to the degree that it's possible."
However, McGeehan notes that there still appears to be a loophole in the administration's stance -- that is, the possible use of non-American interrogators to abuse terrorist suspects held outside the United States.
"That still looks like a possibility. Although the spirit of her statement was against it, it still would be a technical possibility of that happening, yes."
Still, not everyone is certain that Washington has changed its stance. John Sifton follows the issue for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, where he's a researcher on terrorism and counterterrorism. He tells RFE/RL that part of the problem is the Bush administration's own definition of torture.
Sifton says that while official U.S. policy bans torture, the administration has previously argued that it is allowed to use harsh methods that it believes do not constitute torture -- defined by the CAT as "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" -- against non-American suspects outside the United States.
Washington's exact position on the matter may become clearer in the coming days. A bill in the U.S. Congress sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain, a former war prisoner, would legally close the loophole regarding non-U.S. citizens held abroad. But so far, the Bush administration has strongly opposed the bill, which overwhelmingly passed in the Senate and is reportedly still negotiating its details with McCain.
Human Rights Watch's Sifton says the outcome of those talks is likely to show where the administration stands on the issue.
"Technically, if this is a new administration policy, then it can be undone at a later time, and with little fanfare," he said. "The McCain amendment, on the other hand, covers all personnel in all places, for all detainees no matter what the circumstances. And it can't be changed, it can't be dodged, at a later date."
Rice, meanwhile, is likely to face further questions about U.S. policy as she continues her swing through Europe. Later today and tomorrow she is scheduled to meet with NATO officials in Brussels. Earlier this week, she visited Germany and Romania, the alleged site of one of those CIA prisons.
Romania and Poland, the other European country suspected of hosting the prisons, have both strongly denied the reports.