MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday defended tough interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects approved by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, saying they were necessary to protect America from new attacks.
In her most extensive public comments about how the administration dealt with detainee interrogations in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax attacks that followed, Rice insisted the methods of questioning complied with both U.S. law and treaty obligations.
But she acknowledged that those rules had since changed and that the United States was a "different place" then, adding that the administration's top priority at the time had been preventing new attacks and not necessarily observing fine legal points.
"The fact is that after Sept. 11, whatever was legal in the face of not just the attacks of Sept. 11, but the anthrax attacks that happened, we were in an environment in which saving America from the next attack was paramount," Rice said.
"But even in that environment, President Bush made clear that we were going to live up to our obligations at home and to our treaty obligations abroad," she told an audience at the headquarters of Google Inc.
Rice noted that legal restrictions on the treatment of detainees had evolved significantly between 2002 and 2003, when administration officials had allowed harsh techniques, including one that some believe to be torture, and the passage in 2005 of the Detainee Treatment Act that prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
"Now, there has been a long evolution in American policy about detainees and about interrogations," she said. "We now have in place a law that was not there in 2002 and 2003."
"So the ground is different now," she said.
Rice refused to specify what specific techniques might have been discussed or approved, but said America was safer because of interrogation conducted on al-Qaida detainees captured in the first months and year after the 9/11 attacks.
"We now know a great deal more about how al-Qaida operates thanks to what we were able to learn from those early detainees," she said. "We now have networks that give us information much better than in 2002 and 2003 and these issues have evolved.
"They have evolved in the context of democracy, they have evolved in the context of the constant debate about our values and ... I think that we are now in a different place now then we were," Rice said.
At the same time, she maintained that Bush's top aides had been scrupulous in making sure the early interrogations conformed to existing rules.
"I don't want anyone to believe that even when we were in that different place that we failed to ask the question: 'Are we living up to our laws and to our treaty obligations?' We asked the questions even then, but it is a different America now than what has been and gone."
Her comments came in response to a question from a Google employee who asked at a town hall meeting about the simulated drowning interrogation technique known as waterboarding that many consider to be a form of torture.
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