WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the United States will always play by international rules as she prepared to visit Middle Eastern nations where the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is shorthand for a discriminatory foreign policy.
"For the United States an essential element of the rule of law has always been and still remains law among nations," Rice told an American Bar Association international law gathering. "We have always respected our international legal obligations and we have led the world in developing new international law."
Rice spoke against the backdrop of rising debate over U.S. legal and moral obligations in the detention and treatment of suspected or potential terrorists at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Vice President Dick Cheney has led a White House charge to exempt the CIA from a proposed national legal ban on torture, and the administration has threatened a veto over the issue.
Senate Democrats are pressing for creation of an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse, and the European Union is investigating news reports of secret CIA prisons in Europe. President Bush on Monday defended U.S. interrogation practices and called the treatment of terrorism suspects appropriate.
"We do not torture," Bush said. "We're working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it possible, more possible, to do our job. There's an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. And so, you bet we will aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law."
Since the terror attacks on New York and Washington four years ago, Cheney and others in Bush's close circle of advisers have argued that requirements under the Geneva Convention treaties on prisoners of war are outdated in a war without defined fronts or enemies.
They also have argued that the traditional legal system should not apply, and the United States plans to try foreign terror suspects at Guantanamo under a special system of military tribunals.
Over administration objection, the Supreme Court this week agreed to review a constitutional challenge to the military trial system. The justices will decide if President Bush overstepped his authority with plans for a military trial for Usama bin Laden's former driver, who is being held at Guantanamo. It would be the first such trial since World War II.
Rice did not mention those debates in brief remarks a day ahead of a trip to promote democracy, development and accountable government in the Middle East.
The treatment of the mostly Muslim prisoners picked up in the global fight against terrorism is largely an issue handled by the Pentagon and the CIA, but resentment over Guantanamo and abuses revealed at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq complicate Rice's diplomatic agenda.
"When Americans violate the law, whether in our country or in foreign lands, we do and we should hold them accountable for their crimes as we saw ... after the horrific events that sickened us all at Abu Ghraib," Rice said.
"The virtue of the rule of law is not that it erases all human imperfection but that it upholds a standard of justice that enables democratic societies to improve themselves over time."
Rice has been an advocate behind the scenes for modulating the administration's message on torture and detainee treatment, but she stood squarely behind Bush in her only public remarks on the topic this week.
The United States is in a "different kind of war," Rice said Tuesday after releasing a report critical of religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia, another nation she will visit next week.
"We, our allies, others who have experienced attacks, have to find a way to protect our people," Rice said. The administration protected itself "within the constraint of the constitution and cognizant of our values," she said.
First stop on Rice's trip is Bahrain, where headlines this week followed the homecoming of three men held at Guantanamo for nearly four years. "Free at Last!" proclaimed the English-language Gulf News. The three were picked up in Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and were never charged with a crime.
Bahrain is one of America's closest allies in the Gulf region and is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. As in other Gulf nations and in Saudi Arabia, close official ties with the United States coexist with widespread popular distaste for the United States and Bush policies.
Rice will also see Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a delicate moment. Neither side has heeded her advice to capitalize on Israel's historic withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip two months ago.