Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Europe this week amid a political furor on the Continent over allegations that the United States maintains secret prisons in Eastern Europe to hold suspected terrorists.  VOA'S Peter Fedynsky examines the charges and their potential impact on Secretary's European agenda.

Secretary Rice discussed allegations of secret U.S. prisons in Europe last week with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  Germany is one of several European allies that have called on the United States to clarify reports of such facilities.  The Bush administration has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but the United States has promised to respond to European concerns.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "These are certainly legitimate questions that are posed by the press and publics and we will do our best to respond to those questions."

On November 2nd, the Washington Post cited unnamed U.S. and foreign officials saying that the Central Intelligence Agency "has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe." 

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog organization, followed up with its own investigation.  Tom Malinowski is the group's advocacy director in Washington. "We've looked at flight records of aircraft that the CIA has used to move detainees around the world and found circumstantial evidence pointing at least to Poland and Romania as possible sites."

Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu deny the existence of secret CIA prisons in their countries.  But Human Rights Watch points to flight logs, which indicate that the CIA flew a Boeing 737 aircraft on an indirect route from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with unexplained stops in Szymany Airport in Northeastern Poland and the Mihail Kogalniceanu military airfield in Romania on September 22, 2003. 

The organization has also compiled a list of 26 detainees allegedly held incommunicado by the CIA, including Ramzi Binalshibh, a suspected co-conspirator in the September 11th attacks on the United States.  Human Rights Watch says others are suspected of involvement in serious crimes, such as the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia.

News organizations have long alleged movement of prisoners on secret CIA flights, including one at a small county airport in rural North Carolina.  However, James Carafano, an anti-terrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, says flight logs and prisoner lists do not prove the existence of secret prisons.

"These allegations have been made before,? said Mr. Carafano.  ?What you have is people coming forward who seem incredibly credible: representatives of the United Nations, representatives from non-governmental organizations, and they say 'we've heard enough of these stories, so we think it's credible.'  Well, that equates to, if you say a rumor often enough, 'it's true?."

Among the rumors is a report that a CIA prisoner flight passed through Austrian airspace in January 2003.  The country's Air Force commander, Major General Erich Wolf, said on Wednesday that Austrian military jets had intercepted the Frankfurt to Azerbaijan flight and revealed nothing suspicious.  Also on Wednesday, EU Justice Minister Franco Frattini said there is no evidence so far of secret CIA flights or prisons.

Nonetheless, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says an explanation is of vital interest to the United States. "The United States derives its moral authority from the perception that it stands for basic principles of democratic governance, human rights, respect for the law.  The United States has signed numerous treaties, which forbid this kind of action.  And for the United States to preach these values to others, when it's violating them itself is tremendously damaging to U.S. interests."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will seek to advance U.S. interests beginning Monday with a five-day trip to Germany, Romania, Ukraine and Belgium.  

James Carafano, at the Heritage Foundation, says the current uproar in Europe over secret prisons should not cloud the Secretary's trip. "Fundamentally, the U.S. and Europe are moving in the same direction on terrorism.  They both think terrorism is a serious global problem.  They both realize they that have to cooperate together to solve this problem.  They both want to cooperate.  I don't think this is going to be a serious bump in the road to U.S.-European relations, and certainly not to cooperation on terrorism."

But EU officials take the allegations seriously enough to have threatened to cut off EU voting rights for any member country found to allow secret prisons on its soil.