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U.S./Germany: Rice, Steinmeier Discuss Reported 'Secret Prisons'

Rice said recently that ordinary rules of detention do not apply in the war on terror (RFE/RL) Frank-Walter Steinmeier's first visit to Washington as Germany's foreign minister came at a delicate time. The European Union is concerned about news reports that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has operated secret prisons where suspected terrorists are denied some basic rights. Some of these prisons reportedly are in Europe. The issue came up yesterday when Steinmeier met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Washington, 30 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice and Steinmeier discussed the issue of secret prisons, but he stressed that the subject did not dominate their talks.

McCormack said at the daily State Department briefing that the two spoke about a wide range of topics, from Afghanistan to Iran's nuclear program to Ukraine and Belarus.

"Secretary Rice assured the foreign minister [Steinmeier] that United States activities comply with all U.S. laws and the constitution and that we comply with our international obligations. We understand that the presidency of the European Union is going to be sending an inquiry to the United States concerning these issues, and the secretary assured the foreign minister that the United States would respond to that inquiry," McCormack said.

McCormack repeatedly deflected questions about whether Rice, in her eventual response to the EU, would say exactly where such secret prisons might be located. He said he was not in a position even to confirm or deny their existence.

The U.S. spokesman said Rice and Steinmeier discussed the secret-prisons issue in what he called "the broader context of fighting the war on terrorism." In an interview published yesterday in "USAToday," Rice said that in the war on terror, ordinary rules of detention do not apply.

McCormack elaborated on that point: "The terrorists know no boundaries. They know no regulations or rules, or they don't comply with any laws. They don't wear any uniform. So what we are together working to try to do is to fight this common enemy that we have, which is determined to attack our very way of life, the freedoms that we share with Germany, with other European countries. So we are all working together to fight this common enemy."

McCormack also was asked if the behavior at the suspected secret prisons complied with the laws of the European Union or with the laws of individual countries where the centers may be situated. He replied that Washington never asks its employees to engage in illegal behavior.

"I'm not a lawyer. I can't tell you -- I can't tell you exactly what European laws are and how they mesh up with U.S. laws," he said. "I can only tell you that U.S. actions comply with U.S. laws. We don't ask -- we don't ask our U.S. government officials to do things that are illegal. They comply with the [U.S.] Constitution and they are consistent with our international obligations."

Under the European Union treaty, the European Commission, the European Parliament, or one-third of the EU's member states can demand a vote to sanction an EU member accused of a persistent breach of human rights. A majority vote of the European Parliament can mean a loss of some rights for a member country within the EU, including voting rights.

The suspected secret prisons issue was also raised yesterday with President George W. Bush, who was in Phoenix to discuss an unrelated topic, immigration reform. As he has previously, Bush said the U.S. government does not permit illegal treatment of prisoners. "The United States of America does not torture, and that is important for people around the world to understand," he said.

Yet the Bush administration continues to oppose legislation that would ban interrogation by torture of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. Vice President Dick Cheney has been trying to persuade Congress to include an exemption in the measure for the CIA. The Senate already has passed the bill, without the exemption. It's fate in the House of Representatives is unsure.