Mary Dejevsky: Look behind Condoleezza's honeyed words

She wore her hair in a wavier style. But she answered almost none of the questions

The Independent

Published: 09 December 2005

Condoleezza Rice was in relaxed mood when she talked to students in Kiev this week. Finding the ideal college course, like finding the ideal job, she told them, was like falling in love. And for Ms Rice, it seems, being US Secretary of State is the ideal job.

After days of smoothing the ruffled feathers of US allies around Europe, Ms Rice can be well pleased with her work. At every stop she faced a barrage of hostile questions about secret flights, prisons and interrogation methods that hovered around the definition of torture. After each confrontation, the discomfited allies pronounced themselves duly satisfied.

Yesterday's meeting at Nato headquarters was the culmination. Billed as a meeting that would be tense, it turned out to be almost a non-event. Softened up at an exclusive dinner with the Secretary of State the night before, Europe's foreign ministers rolled over, stuck their paws in the air and allowed Ms Rice to tickle their stomachs. "It is my impression," said the Nato secretary general, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, "that Secretary Rice ... cleared the air. You will not see this discussion continuing."

To which the only reasonable response should be: why on earth not? Ms Rice was more quietly spoken than on previous visits. She wore her hair in a longer, wavier style: she seemed to have undergone something of a "be-nice-to-Europe" makeover. But she answered almost none of the real questions.

Her text for the tour was a statement issued on the eve of her departure from Washington that contained as many weasel words as paragraphs. She clung to this script, as the authorised version of US policy. But no graduate of the Blair-Campbell school of spinning would have the slightest difficulty identifying the loopholes.

Ms Rice acknowledged - as though coming clean - that "renditions", the practice of transporting prisoners from one country to another, were a long-standing practice and unexceptional. She cited two examples of criminals who had been transported across national boundaries: Ramzi Yousef, who was subsequently convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, and "Carlos the Jackal", apprehended in Sudan. The capture of Carlos had even been judged lawful by the European Commission on Human Rights.

All of which is true - except that these cases are rather different from the US "renditions" of today. These are not repatriations of known terrorists, they are the delivery of suspects to third countries for interrogation - or worse. Invariably, those third countries are places where the legal position of suspects and the methods employed by interrogators are rather less circumscribed than they would be (or should be) in the US.

One paragraph of Ms Rice's script deserves more detailed exegesis. "In accordance with the policy of this administration," she said, "the US does not transport and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture". But what about "interrogation" without torture? What is the legal justification for detention in the first place? Who are these "detainees" and why are they being transported anywhere? Even to introduce the disclaimers by reference to "the policy of this administration" raises a suspicion that there is a parallel world of activity that is not "in accordance" with policy, but still exists.

Torture may be one component. In Ms Rice's book, torture is "defined by law" and a crime under US law. One reading of this, though, is that anything outside the strict legal definition is not torture - and so tolerated, if not expressly permitted. When Ms Rice told reporters in Ukraine that US personnel were obliged to comply with the UN convention on torture whether they were in the US or abroad, this was presented by her spin doctors - and hailed across Europe - as a thoroughly welcome change in US policy. How easily are our politicians satisfied with minor departures from the unacceptable!

A few sane voices have since made themselves heard. The International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday forced the US to admit it had not granted access to an unspecified number of its detainees. Meanwhile Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, warned that the international ban on torture was becoming a casualty of the "war on terror" . No country, she said, could ask for a "blank cheque saying 'just trust us ... we will handle it and the less you know the better'."

Would that our own ministers - British and European - had been as unswerving in their principles and as clear of sight when they met Ms Rice. Or could it be that they too have something "secret", like complicity, to hide?