BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that the United States has admitted making a mistake in the case of a German national who claimed he was wrongfully imprisoned by the CIA.
Merkel spoke during a press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who refused to discuss specifics with reporters. The two women leaders' first meeting was dominated by questions about U.S. terrorism policies, including the five-month detention of Lebanese-born Khaled al-Masri and reports of secret CIA prisons and potentially illegal use of European airports and airspace to transport terror suspects.
"The American administration is not denying" it erred in the case of al-Masri, Merkel said through a translator.
Merkel welcomed that admission and added that she is grateful for Rice's assurances that the United States conducts anti-terror operations legally and without the use of torture.
"I'm happy to say we have discussed the one case, which the government of the United States has of course accepted as a mistake," Merkel said. "I'm very happy that the foreign minister has repeated here that when such mistakes happen, they must be corrected immediately. Everything else must happen in accordance with the law."
"We haven't discussed other cases," Merkel added, "so I cannot recognize any pattern."
Al-Masri was expected to bring suit against the CIA on Tuesday in Washington. He claims he was seized while on vacation in Europe last year and then brought to a U.S. prison in Afghanistan, where he was mistreated and interrogated for suspected ties to the al-Qaida terrorist group.
The German parliament will soon take up the matter, Merkel said, adding, "That is appropriate."
"We recognize the chancellor will be reviewing this" in parliament, Rice said. "We also recognize that any policy will sometimes result in error and when it happens we do everything we can to correct it."
The American diplomat also offered a broad defense of intelligence gathering in the pursuit of terrorists.
"This is essentially a war in which intelligence is absolutely key to success," Rice said. "If you are going to uncover plots, if you are going to get to people before they commit their crimes, that is largely an intelligence function."
Ticking off a list of recent terror attacks, Rice said the consequence of failing to find out about terror plots ahead of time can be seen not only in New York and Washington, sites of the Sept. 11 jetliner attacks, but also in Amman, Jordan; Beslan, Russia; London; Madrid and elsewhere.
Later Tuesday, Rice was flying to Romania, a country identified as a likely site of a secret detention facility run by the CIA. Romania denies it. She will sign a defense cooperation pact related to an air base the advocacy group Human Rights Watch has identified as a probable site for a clandestine prison.
In Berlin, Rice met with Merkel, the country's first leader from the formerly communist East, for about an hour. Merkel pledged last week to put aside past differences between Germany and the United States even as she pressed for the Bush administration to take the CIA prison concerns seriously.
"Let the battles of the past lie — those battles have been fought," Merkel said in her first speech to parliament as chancellor.
The United States is eager to get off on the right foot with Merkel after turbulent relations with the government of blunt Bush opponent Gerhard Schroeder.
Rice met in Washington last week with new German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and promised him an answer on the prison issue. Merkel comes to Washington to see President Bush in January.
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 reports of CIA flights carrying al-Qaida prisoners through European airports.
Several countries have denied they hosted such sites. If the United States did operate such prisons, or is still doing so, the information would be classified. The Bush administration has refused to answer questions about it in public.
"Were I to confirm or deny, say yes or say no, then I would be compromising intelligence information, and I'm not going to do that," Rice told reporters on her plane to Germany. Before leaving Washington, Rice told reporters that fighting terrorism is "a two-way street" and that Europeans are safer for tough but legal U.S. tactics.