Luke Harding / Guardian – 2005-12-15 09:05:49
BERLIN (December 7, 2005) — Condoleezza Rice began her tour of Europe yesterday with a rare public admission that the US had made “mistakes” in the war on terror.
Speaking after a meeting with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Ms Rice again insisted that the US did not “condone” torture. “It is against US law,” she said. But she appeared to concede for the first time that the Bush administration’s uncompromising policy of “rendition” against terrorist suspects had sometimes gone wrong.
“We recognise that any policy will sometimes result in errors,” the US secretary of state said. She added: “When this happens we will do everything we can to rectify it.”
Her comments in Berlin came at the start of her five-day tour, which takes in Romania, Ukraine and Brussels. The visit has been accompanied by a wave of criticism from across Europe over the CIA’s practice of transferring terrorist suspects to third countries for interrogation.
There were also new and embarrassing revelations yesterday that the CIA had closed down its secret jails in eastern Europe after their existence was revealed early last month by the Washington Post. According to ABC, citing CIA officials, the prisons believed to be in Poland and Romania were shut last month.
The 11 al-Qaida suspects held there were flown to north Africa before Ms Rice’s trip, the network said. Ms Rice’s unusual concession to US critics appears to be an attempt to deflect outrage in Germany over the case of Khalid Masri – a German national mistakenly kidnapped by the CIA in December 2003.
Standing next to Ms Rice, Ms Merkel yesterday said that the US had “accepted” it had “erroneously taken” Mr Masri, who spent five months in a freezing Afghan jail after the CIA grabbed him in Macedonia.
The affair is also bad news for Germany’s former government under Gerhard Schröder. It apparently knew about the CIA blunder but agreed to US requests to say nothing about it. A special Germany parliamentary commission would now investigate, Ms Merkel said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, yesterday announced that it was suing the CIA and its director at the time George Tenet over his case. Mr Masri had been due to address a press conference – but was apparently unable to attend after US officials refused him permission to enter the country.
Ms Rice declined to comment directly. But asked if she could “guarantee” that the CIA would not snatch anyone else, she said: “Any policy will sometimes have mistakes. It is our promise to our partners that, should that be the case, we will rectify those mistakes.”
However, Ms Rice said she had no regrets about the methods used by the CIA, insisting that American intelligence-gathering operations had “saved European lives”. “We have an obligation to defend our people. We will use every lawful means to do it,” she declared, arguing that it was necessary to “get the perpetrators” before they committed “mass murder”. She also pointed out that Europe had been the site of several terrorist outrages, citing Madrid and London.
But it seems scrutiny of the CIA’s activities in Europe is unlikely to dwindle. There were yesterday fresh claims in Italy that the CIA had deliberately deceived the authorities there over the whereabouts of a radical Islamic cleric whom the agency had in fact kidnapped.
According to the Washington Post, the CIA seized Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian refugee known as Abu Omar, from a street in Milan. The agency then told Italian anti-terrorism police that they had information that he had fled to the Balkans – a piece of disinformation. The strategy worked for more than a year, until the Italians discovered that the CIA had whisked Mr Nasr off to Egypt, where he was allegedly interrogated and tortured, the Washington Post reported.
Despite the row over the CIA, Ms Rice enjoyed a soft landing in Germany. Her Berlin visit marks the start of a new relationship between the countries following the row under Mr Schröder over Iraq.
Ms Merkel, a pro-atlanticist who took over as chancellor last month, yesterday described her meeting with Ms Rice as “important”, and said it signalled a “good start” for future German-US relations. She deliberately refrained from criticising the US but said Germany took its international obligations on human rights seriously.
She had also raised the issue of CIA “overflights” following revelations that the CIA had flown to Germany 437 times.
Ms Rice later arrived in Romania, where she signed a defence cooperation pact. The pact related to an airbase near the Black Sea identified by Human Rights Watch as a site for a clandestine prison. Romania has denied hosting CIA jails. Ms Rice refused to say which countries were involved with the prisons. “Were I to confirm or deny, say yes or say no then I would be compromising intelligence information, and I’m not going to do that,” she said yesterday.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
CIA ‘Emptied Secret Jails’ before Rice Europe Trip
Alec Russell in Washington and Kate Connolly in Berlin
(December 7, 2005) — The CIA last month emptied two secret prisons in Eastern Europe of terrorist suspects in a frantic effort to defuse the “rendition” controversy ahead of Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Europe, sources in the agency have claimed.
Eleven leading al-Qa’eda suspects were transferred to a new CIA facility in North Africa, current and former officers told ABC television.
The allegation emerged as Miss Rice, the US secretary of state, had an awkward meeting with Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor.
It had been billed as the start of a new era of relations but instead it was dominated by the transatlantic row over the CIA’s activities in Europe, and one case in which the CIA allegedly mistook a German citizen for a terrorist suspect and abducted him.
The Bush administration has refused to confirm or deny that the CIA runs “black sites” in Eastern Europe to hold terrorist suspects outside the reach of US law. The allegations were made in the Washington Post last month.
The controversy intensified with the release of more detailed allegations on ABC News yesterday. It claimed that 11 top terrorist suspects were held on a former Soviet air base in Eastern Europe until some time last month.
Several of them were later held at a second base, CIA officials told the network. They were all moved to North Africa after the Post’s report.
Ten of the detainees were subjected to the harshest interrogation techniques allowed, the network alleged.
Miss Rice sought to mollify critics in Germany, the first stop of her four-day tour, yesterday when she admitted America had made “mistakes” in its fight against terrorism. The Bush administration would, she said, do everything it could to rectify them.
A large part of her talks with Mrs Merkel concentrated on the case of the German national, Khaled el Masri. He was allegedly flown by the CIA from the Balkans to Afghanistan, held for five months and released because he was the wrong man.
“I am happy to say that we spoke about the individual case, which the US administration has accepted as a mistake,” Mrs Merkel said.
US officials later however bridled at Mrs Merkel’s comments. They said Miss Rice had informed Germany about Mr Masri’s detention and release. “We are not quite sure what was in her head,” one senior US official said, referring to the German chancellor.
The official added that Mrs Merkel might have drawn her conclusion from media reports rather than from communication with the US government.
The row was the worst possible conclusion to a meeting that both countries had hoped would usher in a friendlier period of relations following the appalling relationship between Gerhard Schröder, Mrs Merkel’s predecessor, and President George W Bush.
Mrs Merkel stressed that while agreeing on the need to fight terrorism she did not support any illegal methods.
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