The United States reaffirmed Friday its stand that Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev is a terrorist. But the State Department said the ABC television network had the legal right to carry an interview with him.
Mr. Basayev has claimed responsibility for some of the most egregious acts of terror in Russia in recent years, and the airing of an interview with him by ABC drew a strong diplomatic protest from Moscow.
But the State Department says the U.S. government had no authority to prevent the network from carrying the interview, even as it reaffirmed its view that Mr. Basayev and his militant Chechen followers are terrorists.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called in the U.S. charge-d'affairs in Moscow to hear the official protest, after the Basayev interview was aired in the United States late Thursday on the ABC news program Nightline.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. government had no role to play in ABC's decision to air the Basayev segment, and that it was the network's constitutional right do so.
At the same time, he noted that Mr. Basayev was officially designated a terrorist by the United States in 2003, and said there can be no justification for the terror attacks he has claimed responsibility for, including the Beslan school seizure last year that led to more than 300 deaths.
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms any act of terrorism and we have said before, specifically with regard to the issue of Chechnya that no cause can justify actions that take the lives, or risk the lives, of innocent civilians. With respect to the issue of the broadcast of this interview, the U.S. government has had no involvement in ABC's decision to air the interview. The U.S. government has no authority to prevent ABC from exercising its constitutional right to broadcast the interview," he said.
In the interview, said to have been filmed at a hideout in the mountains of Chechnya, Mr. Basayev admitted his role in the Beslan siege among other attacks and said he was planning more.
While conceding he might be a terrorist, he charged that Russian authorities had mounted a genocidal campaign to prevent Chechen independence.
Russian officials said the U.S. network showed outrageous neglect for the standards of responsible journalism by carrying the Basayev remarks, and said the fact the broadcast went ahead showed a U.S. double-standard on the terrorism issue.
Under questioning spokesman McCormack said there was no inconsistency between the U.S. government's approach to the Basayev interview and its past criticism of the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera for, among other things, carrying taped messages from Osama bin Laden and other terrorist figures.
Mr. McCormack said the United States has criticized al-Jazeera in the past for misrepresenting U.S. policies and actions, and for carrying tapes that might include signals from bin Laden and others to terrorist cells.
But he said U.S. officials have always acknowledged that editorial judgments are for the various networks to make. He also said he was unaware of any concern in the U.S. government that the Basayev interview contained any message or signal to terror cells.