Image: Condoleezza Rice
Lebrun Didier/photo News/gamma  /  Gamma Press
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assures NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday that the U.S. does not allow torture of terrorist suspects.
updated 12/12/2005 8:14:01 AM ET 2005-12-12T13:14:01

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and European leaders reached for detente Thursday in the war of words over whether the U.S. has gone too far in pursuit of terrorists. However, she gave no guarantees that detainees would not be abused again.

European foreign ministers said Rice had “cleared the air” by assuring NATO allies the U.S. does not allow torture of terrorist suspects and respects principles of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.

Rice said she takes European concerns seriously and welcomes the debate as an opportunity to explain U.S. intentions and obligations.

“I think it’s only natural that sometimes we have these discussions,” Rice said at a press conference at NATO headquarters. “Questions and concerns arise. We should discuss them, we should discuss them in a serious way among friends.”

The comments came on her final day of meetings with European leaders on a trip that has seen the spotlight stolen daily by questions about secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and U.S. policy on torture-like practices. But the friendly words among diplomats did not necessarily portend that the uproar would subside on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The issue has been a high-profile one in the United States, where it has mixed with the controversy over President Bush’s war policies. It also has stirred outrage among residents of many European countries.

In the month since reports broke of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, the issue has threatened to undo Rice’s efforts to heal rifts with Europe that have festered since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although Britain and other allies are part of the U.S.-led coalition, the war and Bush remain highly unpopular in Europe.

European leaders satisfied, for now
A refinement of U.S. policy on torture-like practices, made midcourse this week, was partly an effort to quiet outcry in Europe. Thursday’s comments by Rice and the European diplomats seemed to indicate both sides seem content to agree to disagree on some issues — at least for now.

“Given the assurances she has given that United States will act in conformity with its own constitution and its own laws and it will also act in accordance with international agreements, I think that we have gotten guarantees and all the satisfactory answers we can hope for,” Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot said Thursday.

Rice told reporters she can give no assurances that terrorism suspects won’t be treated harshly again despite what she called clear U.S. rules against torture.

“Will there be abuses of policy? That’s entirely possible,” Rice said. “Just because you’re a democracy it doesn’t mean that you’re perfect.”

She cited the scandal at Abu Ghraib as an example.

Rice said, however, that any abuses would be investigated and violators punished. “That is the only promise we can make,” Rice said.

That statement, plus accounts of a lively discussion at a private dinner Rice attended with other foreign ministers on Wednesday, seemed enough to win over Bot, who only days earlier called Rice’s explanations inadequate.

No confirmation of alleged prisons
Wednesday’s dinner opened with discussion of terrorism policies, including the reports of secret prisons where some European governments feared suspects could have been abused, diplomats said. The Bush administration has neither confirmed nor denied it ran such prisons, but Rice did assure allies that their airports or airspace were not used to facilitate torture.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that Rice had succeeded in moving the conversation away from U.S. policy and more toward a “conversation about how to deal with the issues” in fighting terror.

“I said to my colleagues last night, and I was very pleased that a number of them spoke up and affirmed that they understood this about the United States. We are a nation of laws,” Rice said. “The president of the United States is not going to ask American citizens to violate U.S. law or to violate our international obligations.”

NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer told a news conference that the storm had blown over.

“It is my impression that Secretary Rice ... cleared the air. You will not see this discussion continuing” at the NATO headquarters, he said.

For her part, Rice said, “I’m perfectly happy to continue to have the discussion, because I happen to think that great democracies have an obligation to remain a standard of the rule of law.”

NBC News contributed to this report.

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