WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned the tables on European critics of tough U.S. tactics in the war on terror Monday, maintaining that intelligence gathered by the CIA has saved European as well as American lives.
Responding for the first time in detail to the outcry over reports of secret CIA-run prisons in European democracies, Rice said the United States "will use every lawful weapon to defeat these terrorists."
But in remarks delivered as she got ready to leave on a trip to Europe, she steadfastly refused to answer the underlying question of whether the United States had CIA-operated secret prisons there.
"We cannot discuss information that would compromise the success of intelligence, law enforcement, and military operations. We expect other nations share this view," Rice said in a statement at suburban Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
President Bush has denied that the United States engages in torture in the war against terrorists, but Rice's statements Monday represented the most detailed public comment the administration has yet offered on this vexing issue.
Information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies from a "very small number of extremely dangerous detainees," the secretary said, and has helped prevent terrorist attacks and saved lives "in Europe as well as in the United States and other countries."
She provided no specific examples of instances where the CIA had foiled terrorist plots. But in October, the White House said the United States and its allies have prevented at least 10 major plots by Al Qaeda in the last four years, including plans to use hijacked planes to target the West Coast in 2002 and the East Coast in 2003 and another to bomb several locations in Britain in 2004.
The State Department, meanwhile, said it was difficult to be specific about lives being saved because of the nature of intelligence.
But spokesman Adam Ereli said "the point the secretary was trying to make is that the cooperation we have with our European partners and with our partners throughout the world has resulted in our frustrating the planning and operations and attacks of terrorists, including in Europe."
Ereli declined also to say whether the United States operates secret prisons. "There is information that we just don't discuss," he said.
Reports of the existence of the secret prisons has caused a trans-Atlantic uproar. The European Union has asked the Bush administration about these reports.
By suggesting whatever the United States did had the cooperation of European nations, Rice may have imposed pressure on their governments to explain to their people whether they violated national or international laws.
And that could make Rice's stops in Europe even more difficult.
"It is up to those governments and their citizens to decide if they wish to work with us," she said, "and decide how much sensitive information they can make public."
"They have a sovereign right to make that choice," she said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday that Rice's comment "makes clear" that the United States does not torture its detainees and said, "All of us must work together within the rule of law to use every tool at our disposal" to counter terrorism.
Britain, which holds the revolving presidency of the EU, sent a two-paragraph letter to Washington late last month demanding more information about reports that the CIA detained and interrogated terrorism prisoners in Soviet-era compounds in Eastern Europe.
In Germany, her first stop, a government spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, said his government had a list of more than 400 overflights and landings by planes suspected of being used by the CIA. He told reporters "we are hoping that all of the facts will be discussed" by Rice with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Rice said the United States does not permit or tolerate torture under any circumstances.
"The United States has fully respected the sovereignty of other countries that have cooperated in these matters," the secretary said. "The United States is a country of laws. My colleagues and I have been sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. ... The United States must protect its citizens."
The reference to sovereignty implies that any European democracies that may have provided secret prisons did so willingly.
"So now before the next attack," Rice said, "we should all face the hard choices that democratic governments face."
Human rights organizations and legal groups, both in the U.S. and abroad, have accused the United States of allowing a practice known as "rendition to torture," in which suspects are taken to countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia where harsh interrogation methods are used.
Rice did say the United States has long participated in the movement of terror suspects between countries.
European governments have expressed outrage over reports of a network of secret Soviet-era prisons in Eastern Europe where detainees may have been harshly treated and that flights carrying al-Qaida prisoners went through European airports.
In Berlin, a government spokesman said Monday that Germany has a list of more than 400 overflights and landings by planes suspected of being used by the CIA that it plans to ask Rice about during her visit to the German capital.