BRUSSELS, Belgium – EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a special European Parliament committee Tuesday he had no information that CIA agents interrogated Al Qaeda suspects at secret prisons in Europe and operated flights over European territory.
EU lawmakers, however, accused him of giving evasive answers to their investigation into reported questionable CIA activities in Europe.
Solana said that although he had no proof of CIA prisons or flights, the allegations were "not a marginal issue" for EU-U.S. relations. He called on Washington to provide further clarification on terror suspects allegedly held incommunicado.
"Professionally, in the role I have now in the European Union, I have no information whatsoever that tells me with certainty that any of the accusations, allegations, rumors that have taken place in the last period of time are true," Solana told the committee a week after it said data from the EU's air traffic agency prove the CIA has conducted secret flights in Europe since 2001.
Solana said the United States had already given assurances it does not torture terror suspects in detention, and he gave guarantees that no EU country uses intelligence obtained under torture.
"Some Europeans, myself of course included, would welcome similar assurances (from Washington) on incommunicado detentions," he said.
Solana said he had no mandate to ask the EU member states how they handle the allegations, and that the fight against terrorism was solely in the hands of EU governments, earning heavy criticism from some legislators.
"You are in effect washing your hands from responsibility. You can't simply say this is out of your remit," Spanish deputy Willy Meyer said.
British lawmaker Sarah Ludford said Solana's claims of the lack of competence to ask member states basic questions paints "a pathetic picture of the EU."
The parliamentary investigation began in January after news reports said that U.S. agents had interrogated Al Qaeda suspects at secret prisons in eastern Europe.
Human Rights Watch identified Romania and Poland as possible sites of the clandestine detention centers, but both countries denied involvement.
Last Wednesday, the EU parliament committee said that data from Eurocontrol shows the CIA has conducted more than 1,000 clandestine flights in Europe over the last five years, and that some of them secretly shuttled terror suspects to countries where they could face torture.
Legislators said that flight data showed a pattern of alleged hidden operations by U.S. agents, and they accused some European governments of knowing about it but remaining silent.
"We still don't know the facts. Prosecutors are looking into it, but it's hard to comment," Solana told journalists after the hearing.
Solana was the most high-profile EU official invited to appear before the investigating committee so far. He made his comments in response to members' questions. It was his first update since the investigation began.
The parliament committee is seeking firsthand testimony from people who say they were kidnapped by U.S. intelligence agents and from human rights activists and EU anti-terror officials to get a better picture of the reported U.S. "extraordinary rendition" flights.
Secret detention centers and flights via or from Europe to countries where suspects could face torture would breach the continent's human rights conventions.
Solana said European governments sometimes face a dilemma when they have apprehended a person who they believe is a terror suspect, but do not yet have evidence that would stand up in court.
"I do recognize a dilemma. Locking him up indefinitely would be against our tradition of justice. How to handle this dilemma is difficult. We have to discuss this among friends, among allies," he said.