John Bellinger is one of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s closest associates, her legal adviser at the the State Department. During a recent visit to Athens, Bellinger spoke to Kathimerini about Guantanamo Bay, classified detention centers and CIA abductions, as well as allegations of torture by US services. US President George W. Bush, under pressure from international public opinion and Congress, recently announced a number of measures to address these issues. Leading members of Congress have reacted to these plans, however, reflecting the stalemate in US policy since September 11, 2001. Bellinger is the person Rice has assigned the job of listening to the international community and advising her as to how to change the US’s image. When asked if it was true that a person suspected of terrorist activities had been abducted from Greece, Bellinger declined to answer, claiming that Washington cannot reply regarding each specific country or case. We began our interview by asking whether he realized the enormous damage done to the US’s image by the uproar over Guantanamo Bay prison and the torture of inmates. Bellinger replied that everyone «from the president on down» had realized it. «There really is an awareness of the concerns, the controversy over Guantanamo and our detention policies,» he said. «For that reason Secretary Rice asked me, when I became legal adviser and came over to the State Department with her, to work internationally on really addressing these issues. «The president’s speech last week was a comprehensive statement on all aspects of detainee policy,» Bellinger continued. «He stated that all of the people who are in classified locations have been taken out of them. There are none left. They have been brought to Guantanamo Bay. He talked about new interrogation rules, requirements under the Geneva Convention and then at the end spoke directly to the international community, saying he would work with them to put all of this on a better legal foundation. The president was saying that he had heard these concerns and that (the US was) responding.» Classified centers How can the US, which presented itself after the Second World War as supporting international law, violate it, such as with the classified detention centers? First of all we don’t think we have violated either domestic or international laws or treaty obligations. Obviously some individuals have done things that were wrong and they have been held accountable. There is actually no rule that says you cannot hold people in a classified location. We are holding these senior al-Qaida officials because we think they are part of an enemy army of people who are attacking us. A number of these are people who were captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The Geneva Conventions themselves specifically acknowledge that there are certain categories of individuals – spies and saboteurs – who are deemed to have forfeited their rights of communications because they would actually pose a threat if they communicated with the outside world. We were not torturing them. We did not see them as common criminals who needed access to lawyers, we were holding them as combatants in a war with al-Qaida. We need to clarify this. When we capture al-Qaida members who were training in Afghanistan, that was a wartime setting, pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution. If we treated them under a criminal justice system we would have had to immediately read them their rights, arrest them and put evidence into an evidence bag. Does the US government have a clear picture of what happens in these prisons and that in fact no one has been tortured, as in the prisons in Iraq? Yes, because it was a very small program. The president was clear in his speech. I don’t think we have to talk about where these locations were or precisely what interrogation methods were used. If we disclose those then we would be telling al-Qaida exactly what to prepare for. When do you expect Guantanamo to close? We have not done a good job I think of explaining the difficulties in closing Guantanamo. More than 30 countries have nationals in Guantanamo Bay. Those countries don’t want their nationals back. We do not want to be the world’s jailers, but these countries will not take them back. We are intensifying our diplomatic efforts to get them to take them back. We cannot say on December 1 Guantanamo will be closed. There really is not a place for them to go What about the interrogation methods. What is forbidden? The Defense Department is to have a new interrogation field manual that lays out of all the interrogation techniques that the department can use. It’s all unclassified and there are a number of prohibited techniques. As for the CIA, while it is not holding any individuals right now, if we captured a senior al-Qaida official who had information we thought could prevent further attacks, quite likely that person would be questioned by our intelligence agencies. Those are classified for understandable reasons. Coercion is not prohibited as a matter of law (but) we do not allow torture, or any technique that is cruel, inhuman or degrading. What recourse can a prisoner in Guantanamo or a classified detention center have if wrongly arrested through mistaken identity for example? Mistakes can happen in any kind of military campaign. If our forces commit some sort of offense, we hold them accountable. In any kind of military situation, sometimes the wrong people get captured. We don’t pursue our soldiers for picking up the wrong person. That’s something that unfortunately can happen in a war. Could you explain the legal basis for rendition? There is nothing that is illegal per se about renditions. In fact European countries have conducted renditions and they have been upheld by the European Court of Human rights. For example France rendered Carlos The Jackal from the Sudan back to France. He challenged it and the European Court said it was not illegal. There is a prohibition on rendering someone with the expectation or grounds that they are going to be tortured. The US has made it clear that when we do conduct renditions we do so on the basis that the purpose or expectation is that the individual not be tortured or mistreated. Rendition not abduction There is some confusion between intelligence flights and rendition. We have not been snatching people off the streets in Europe. There are so many false allegations. The vast majority are incorrect. We do not conduct renditions behind the backs of our allies. I am not going to answer specific questions, to confirm or deny renditions in any particularly country in Europe. What safeguards are there against torture? Again, we do respect our obligation not to send someone off to a country where we have reason to believe they will be tortured. On the other hand we do transfer people back to their home countries but seek assurances they will not be mistreated. Did Washington have the permission of the Italian government in the abduction of Abu Omar from Milan? We don’t talk about specific cases. As a general matter we cooperate with our allies. What about when mistakes are made, and people are abducted who have nothing to do with terrorism? Secretary Rice has said that if we make mistakes we rapidly try to correct them and that’s the best that we can do. All countries make mistakes. Individuals make mistakes. If we find that someone has intentionally done something wrong, then we hold them accountable.