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US Promises Response to European Inquiry on Alleged Secret Prisons

The State Department says the United States will be responsive to a European Union inquiry into reports the CIA has secretly jailed terrorism suspects in Europe. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue Tuesday with the German Foreign Minister and told him any such activity has been in compliance with U.S. laws.

Bush administration officials are still refusing to confirm or deny news reports about the alleged secret prisons and flights to Europe of suspected terrorists.

However the State Department is promising to be responsive to a written inquiry about the reports from the presidency of the European Union, and also insisting that any such activity has not contravened U.S. laws or America's international obligations.

Officials say the issue figured in but did not dominate a meeting here between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the newly installed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

At a subsequent news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration recognizes that the alleged detention sites and over-flights are of concern in Europe and that Ms. Rice told her German counterpart the concerns will be addressed:

"Secretary Rice assured the foreign minister that the United States activities comply with all U.S. laws and the Constitution, and that we comply with our international obligations," said Mr. McCormack. "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."

Mr. McCormack said the U.S. response to the EU letter will depend on the questions posed, but indicated strongly that it would address the substance of the secret prison reports, something officials have at least publicly declined to do thus far.

He also said Secretary Rice will be prepared to respond to questions about the issue when she visits Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Belgium next week on a trip to be capped by a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

The Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly has also launched a probe into the matter, with European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini Monday threatening sanctions against any EU member country found to be hosting secret detention sites.

Mr. McCormack said questions about the alleged CIA activity are legitimate and that the administration intends to respond to European inquiries in a timely and forthright manner, while also saying that would-be critics need to step back and look at the struggle against terrorism in a larger context:

"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, and with other European countries," added Mr. McCormack. "So we are all working together to fight this common enemy and that both the foreign minister and the secretary agreed that it is the highest duty of any government to act to protect its citizens."

For his part, Foreign Minister Steinmeier told reporters he was happy he and Ms. Rice had addressed the issue at length, and especially pleased over the recognition by the U.S. side that it is of concern in European parliaments and public opinion.

The 45-minute meeting was the first high-level discussion between the Bush administration and the new German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The dialogue will be continued by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who left Washington for Berlin Tuesday, and by Ms. Rice on her visit to the German capital early next week.

Mr. McCormack said the talks also covered European nuclear contacts with Iran, the situation in Afghanistan, the need to consolidate democratic gains in Ukraine, and the problematic human rights situation in Belarus.