KIEV, Ukraine—In what appears to be a major shift in U.S. policy on detainees, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that U.S. forces operating overseas are prohibited from mistreating suspected terrorists.
Previously, the Bush administration had argued that its obligation to uphold a ban on "cruel, inhumane and degrading" practices under the Convention Against Torture, a United Nations treaty, applied only to U.S. territory.
"As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States' obligations under the CAT (Convention Against Torture), which prohibits cruel, 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," Rice said during a stop in Kiev.
It remained unclear whether the statement meant that the administration is imposing new strictures on interrogation techniques that U.S. intelligence operatives abroad are allowed to use abroad. State Department officials traveling with Rice declined to discuss specific techniques and U.S. policy toward their use.
Nevertheless, Rice's statement was the most unequivocal to date by a Bush administration official on the subject and appeared to confirm a gradual shift in White House policy.
Bush has stated repeatedly in recent weeks that the United States doesn't torture detainees. Human rights groups say, however, that the White House hasn't defined what techniques are permitted and which are prohibited.
In October, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration would uphold the treaty "regardless of whether the detainee in question is held in the United States or overseas."
But Gonzales' pledge came with the caveat that "even if such compliance is not legally required," and until Wednesday the administration hasn't said that it was obligated to uphold the treaty's prohibitions outside the United States.
Rice's statement comes as the White House and Congress are sparring over an effort by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to legislate a renewed ban on torture and degrading treatment of detainees.
The McCain amendment, tacked on to defense spending and authorization bills, would make the Army field manual on interrogation the standard for questioning all persons in military custody, and would prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of any person in U.S. custody.
The White House at first opposed the amendment, which passed the Senate 90-9 last month, and threatened to veto any legislation containing the amendment.
But the White House has since been negotiating with McCain over its specifics after Republicans in the House of Representatives indicated that such a ban would be likely to pass the House. A vote is expected no later than next week.
Rice's statement came on the third day of a trip to Europe in which she's struggled to win over critics of Bush's tactics in the war on terrorism.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of the McCain amendment, welcomed Rice's statement.
"It is an important and very welcome change from their previous position, which I believe has cost us dearly in the world and does not reflect our nation's laws or our values," Levin said. "I also believe the administration's position on this matter up to now has endangered our troops, because others might point to our practices to justify their own."
A small group of religious leaders and retired senior defense officials spoke in support of the McCain amendment on Wednesday at a press briefing in Washington.
Retired Brig. Gen. David R. Levine, who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years at the Army's intelligence school, said Army policy has always prohibited torture.
The Bush administration's vague rules and loose interpretation of what constitutes inhumane or degrading treatment led to an atmosphere in U.S. detention facilities of "do what you need to do to get information, but don't get caught," Levine said.
"We did not get into this Geneva Convention business in the beginning because we were wimps," he said, referring to international guidelines on prisoner treatment. "We signed those treaties ... out of concern that in future conflicts ... if we treated people humanely, then hopefully our personnel would be treated humanely."
Torin Nelson, who served as an Army interrogator for 13 years and retired from active service in 2004, said that torture never produced reliable intelligence, and that the repercussions of U.S. policy for the last four years have been "incalculable."
"There are more people who hate us," he said.
Religious leaders warned that the United States had lost the moral high ground in the war on terrorism because of reported prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners threatened to erode the values that Americans held dear, said Rabbi Brian Walt, of Rabbis for Human Rights.
"We are all responsible for the shameful acts that have happened in our name over the past year," he said.
Stephen Colecchi, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, said that not only had the issue "tarnished the country," making allies less likely to cooperate with the United States, it also had compromised America's moral standing.
"There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason," Colecchi said.
The basic commitment to human dignity is "precisely what differentiates us from the terrorists we fight," he said. "This is not just about how we act. It is about who we are as a nation."
(Strobel reported from Kiev, Brown from Washington.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map