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US Balances Rights Issues with War on Terror


US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice embarked on a visit to Europe this week to reassure allies disturbed about reports of secret U.S. prisons and mistreatment of terrorist suspects.

A new kind of war against a new kind of enemy, fought largely in the shadows and with little regard for international boundaries, has raised new moral and legal questions about how to treat an enemy who does not play by any rules.

Allegations of mistreatment of detainees by U.S. military troops and intelligence officers have been raised. Newspapers have printed reports of alleged secret CIA-run prisons, some reportedly in countries of the former Soviet bloc. And the term "rendition" has now entered the language as the practice of capturing suspects and whisking them away to another country.

Since the beginning of anti-terrorist war, U.S. planners have debated over what kind of treatment to extend to captured al-Qaida and Taleban fighters.

Speaking Wednesday in Ukraine, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice reiterated that the United States abides by the international Convention Against Torture, the CAT, anywhere in the world. She said, "As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States' obligations under the 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."

No Clear Guidelines for Interrogation?

As the one-time chief of staff to Ms. Rice's predecessor Colin Powell, Larry Wilkerson was deeply involved in discussions about detainee and interrogation policy. He told VOA some officials, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, wanted to give interrogators wide leeway in how they extracted information, while others allied with Secretary Powell wanted clear restrictions on what coercive techniques interrogators could employ.

Mr. Wilkerson says, "What I saw the president do was compromise. He walked right down the middle of the road. And he said in his official memoranda, he said I want to recognize that this is a different kind of enemy, al-Qaida and the Taliban are a different kind of enemy. They are not conventional warriors. But at the same time I want to say that everyone whom we detain will be treated in accordance with our political and cultural values, and the Geneva Conventions consistent with military necessity. Now that is almost an exact quote."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the instructions from the President were that detainees, while not protected by the Geneva Conventions, were entitled to humane treatment.

"That was his instruction," says Mr. Rumsfeld. "That was the instruction I put out throughout the Department of Defense, and that is, the policy of the department has been for those individuals who were the Taliban or the al-Qaida or other terrorist individuals as opposed to people who were part of an organized military."

But what interrogation techniques are allowed remain classified.

Mr. Wilkerson says he is deeply concerned that what the Bush Administration put in place opened the gates to prisoner abuse. He adds, "What was clearly implemented by the armed forces was a loosening of the guidelines that Geneva (Convention) creates for them, a loosening of the Army field manual guidelines (on interrogation). And when you do that, even imperceptibly when you do that - and this was not imperceptibly, it was a clear deviation from the guidelines - when you do that, you open Pandora's box with regard to the armed forces."

A Call for Standards for Interrogation

US Senators John McCain and Carl Levin have sponsored a bill that would require interrogators to abide by a common set of standards. The White House, which initially opposed the measure, is now seeking an exemption from such rules for the CIA.

Mr. Wilkerson, a former 31-year career soldier, says young soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan may be wrestling with their conscience over the abusive treatment of prisoners. He says he would tell them that they can help ensure that such practices are stopped.

"You have to answer them that we live in a democracy, and it's a pretty strong and powerful democracy," says Mr. Wilkerson. "We will fix this. We will get to the bottom of this, and we will fix this. I can't salve your conscience, young man, young sergeant, young private, whatever, so that you can sleep better at night. But you can help do this. You can help because you know what happened that was wrong. Don't ever let it happen again. Don't ever let your buddies do it again. And let's watch as the system works and we hold these people accountable for what's happened and hopefully in the future have a better situation."


Also controversial is the practice of rendition, whereby terror suspects are whisked off the street or from their homes to be interrogated and detained for an undetermined period.

As recently as Tuesday, President Bush reiterated that the United States does not render suspects to countries that practice torture. But he added that protecting the United States from another terrorist attack is the paramount priority.

"We abide by the law of the United States; we do not torture," said President Bush. "And two, we will try to do everything we can to protect us within the law. We're facing an enemy that would like to hit America again, and the American people expect us to, within our laws, do everything we can to protect them. And that's exactly what the United States is doing. We do not render to countries that torture. That has been our policy, and that policy will remain the same."

Some reports have emerged of the CIA or the military abducting and detaining innocent people with no terrorist connections. Some have been held for extended periods before being released.

A German Muslim, Khalid al-Masri, says he was abducted by U.S. intelligence officers in 2003, taken to Afghanistan where he was beaten and injected with drugs during a five-month detention. He was found to have no terrorist connections and was freed.

Mr. al-Masri has filed suit against the former head of the CIA and three suspected CIA contractors.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.