WASHINGTON – The White House said Friday that the United States is the world leader on human rights, despite outrage in Europe over reports of secret CIA prisons where terrorism detainees may have been mistreated.
The administration has refused to address the question of whether it operated secret sites that may be illegal under European law, citing the constraints of classified information. Secret prisons and many harsh methods of interrogation would be illegal on U.S. soil.
"The president had made it very clear that we do not torture, he would never condone torture or authorize the use of torture," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "If someone doesn't abide by our laws, they're held accountable. That's the difference between us and others."
More than a half-dozen investigations are under way into whether European countries may have hosted secret U.S.-run prisons, and whether European airports and airspace were used for CIA flights in which prisoners were tortured or transported to countries where torture is practiced.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pledged a response to the European Union on the issue, but has given no timetable. It is not clear whether her reply will contain the definitive yes or no as to the existence of prisons first reported a month ago by The Washington Post.
Rice has also pledged to discuss the issue publicly before she leaves Monday for a trip to European capitals. Her itinerary includes Romania, one country identified by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch as a likely prison site. Romania has denied it.
"When it comes to human rights, there is no greater leader than the United States of America, and we show that by holding people accountable when they break the law or violate human rights, and we show that by supporting the advance of freedom and democracy and supporting those in countries that are having their human rights denied or violated, like North Korea," McClellan said.
"We show that by liberating people in Afghanistan and Iraq — some 50 million people. No one has done more when it comes to human rights than the United States of America. I think the American people understand."
If mounting criticism is a guide, Europe may be harder to persuade.
"I think that we are, in our public diplomacy efforts, very sensitive to the concerns of foreign publics," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday. "There have been examples where we've not done as good a job as we might have, but we have ... certainly tried to learn from those past examples."
McCormack has said the United States did not break its own laws or violate international treaties, but he has not fully addressed the assertion from the European Union's justice commissioner that secret prisons would violate European law.
The commissioner, Franco Frattini, said Monday he would propose the suspension of voting rights for any nation found to have hosted a secret detention center.
European lawmakers accused European Union countries Thursday of failing to address allegations about CIA prisons and flights across the continent.
"I am not at all reassured that there is sufficient determination by (member states) to get to the bottom of this and establish the truth," said Sarah Ludford, a British member of the European Parliament's civil liberties committee.
"The allegations are now beyond speculation. We now have sufficient evidence involving CIA flights. We need to know who was on those flights, where they went."