The European Union has requested answers from the Bush administration about reports of secret U.S.-run prisons for terrorism suspects in Europe. The United States will reply "to the best of our ability," the State Department said.
Britain, which holds the revolving presidency of the EU, sent a two-paragraph letter to Washington on Tuesday with the request. It came after weeks of increasing concern in Europe over reports that the CIA has detained and interrogated terrorism prisoners in Soviet-era compounds in Eastern Europe.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not answer questions Wednesday about whether the sites exist or whether the CIA used European airports and airspace to transport suspects. He would not say whether the U.S. response to the Europeans would provide definitive answers, nor whether the U.S. response would be made public.
"We will ... endeavor to respond to this letter to the best of our ability, in a timely and forthright manner," he said.
McCormack set no deadline for a reply. Next week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be in Europe, including Romania, one of the nations identified by Human Rights Watch as a likely site of a secret detention camp.
The Washington Post first reported on the alleged prison network on Nov. 2.
It would be illegal for the U.S. government to hold prisoners in isolation and difficult conditions in secret prisons in the U.S. It long has been assumed that the CIA operates overseas sites to get around U.S. law and to keep terrorism suspects out of the jurisdiction of American courts.
Concerns about alleged CIA activities in Europe have led to investigations in a half-dozen countries. The CIA has declined to comment on the investigations; the White House and State Department have not confirmed any of the allegations.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tried to play down what has become a political and public relations problem for his government, as well as for the Bush administration.
"I think there is no purpose in speculating on allegations that are made on this side or the other side of the Atlantic," Straw told reporters.
"These are allegations about a foreign government," said Straw, who signed the EU letter to Rice. "We have taken the appropriate steps, which is to ask for clarification by that government."
Earlier, Sir Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for Britain's rival Liberal Democrat party, accused the U.S.-allied government of Prime Minister Tony Blair of adopting a "hear no evil, see no evil" attitude.
"If, in fact, people are being moved from a jurisdiction where torture is illegal to a jurisdiction where torture is permissible, that seems to me to be wholly contrary to international law," Campbell told BBC Radio. "If we are allowing facilities for aircraft carrying out these actions, we are at the very least facilitating and we may even be complicit in it."
McCormack gave no indication that the United States would try to put the allegations to rest before Rice left on her trip.
"The secretary will look forward to having whatever discussions concerning this matter do arise in her meetings in Europe," McCormack said.
Neither the United States nor Britain has released the text of the letter. Other nations have made independent attempts to ask the United States if the allegations are true; McCormack said there have been no replies yet.
A British civil liberties group on Wednesday asked the chiefs of 11 police forces to investigate claims that secret U.S. prisoner flights have landed in Britain.
On Monday, the European Union's top justice official warned that EU nations could lose voting rights in the 25-nation bloc if they hosted a clandestine detention center.
A secret jail would violate the European Convention on Human Rights, EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said.
Prisoner transport flights without the knowledge of local authorities would violate international aviation agreements, he said.
Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch claimed that the U.S. holds at least 26 people the advocacy group calls "ghost detainees" at undisclosed locations outside its borders.
Many of the detainees the group listed are suspected of involvement in serious crimes, including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombings in 1998 of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It is unclear whether the group's list includes men who may be held in Europe, AP reported. V.A.