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US needs ‘advice not criticism’ on terror suspects

September 21, 2006

21 September 2006 (Financial Times)
By Michael Peel and Guy Dinmore in Washington

The US has set out on a “new course” in engaging with its international allies over its treatment of terrorist suspects, according to a top Bush administration lawyer.

John Bellinger, legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, challenged Europeans to offer constructive suggestions about how to deal with this “really difficult” area, rather than simply making “criticism after criticism after criticism”.

Mr Bellinger’s comments come as the administration faces increasing domestic and international pressure in areas ranging from the interrogation techniques used on terrorist suspects to the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Mr Bellinger said in an interview with the FT that he had visited a dozen or more European countries in the past year and a half as part of an effort to establish a “common approach” to the problems of dealing with international terrorists.

“It may be that this would be not a binding multilateral treaty but an agreed approach to the policies and the rules,” he said. “My prediction is that over the next six months there will be more conferences, more meetings and more discussions over what the rules and the policies ought to be going forward.”

Mr Bellinger said he thought John Reid, the British home secretary, was “exactly right” when he suggested in April that decades-old international laws such as the Geneva Conventions might have to be re-examined because they assumed only states could cause mass casualties.

“It’s not that you have to throw out the old rules,” said Mr Bellinger.

“But is it clear that what all of our countries invented in 1949 is the immutable legal holy grail as to what the rules ought to be in the 21st century?”

Mr Bellinger acknow-ledged that legal and political pressure at home, as well as international criticism, had played a significant part in shaping the new approach he claimed the Bush administration had adopted. “It’s not just responding to international concern,” he said. “But it’s not just responding to domestic concern.”

The administration has suffered a series of reverses on detainee treatment, including the June Supreme Court ruling that the Guantánamo Bay military commissions authorised by the president in 2002 violated US law and the GenevaConventions.

The White House and senior Republican senators including John McCain, who was tortured in Vietnam, are currently in dispute over Bush administration prop-osals on interrogation techniques allowed at secretCentral Intelligence Agencyprisons.

The Pentagon recently issued a new army manual for interrogations that would include prohibitions on techniques such as “water boarding” – simulated drowning.

Mr Bellinger conceded that questions raised about the US commitment to human rights and “moral clarity” had a “ripple effect” across the world, but he added that some of the criticisms were unfair and inaccurate.

He denied that the US used the practice known as “extraordinary rendition” to take suspects to other countries to be tortured. He said it was “ridiculous” to suggest there had been hundreds or even thousands of detainee flights, forming a “spider’s web of rendition across Europe, and kidnapping people off the streets of every European capital from Ireland to Spain”.

“It’s very easy throughout all of these programmes to be critical of every aspect and just hammer away in terms of criticisms,” Mr Bellinger said.

“And yet there are very few voices that offer alternative, pragmatic solutions to the problem that needs to be solved.”

Mr Bellinger said he had b

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