US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted yesterday that the US may make mistakes in its "war on terrorism" and promised to put them right if they happened.
"We recognize any policy will sometimes result in errors, and when it happens, we will do everything we can to rectify it," Rice said at the start of a European tour overshadowed by allegations of illegal CIA methods against terrorist suspects.
Rice also said the Bush administration will use "every lawful means" to combat international terrorism and does not condone torture.
"We have an obligation to defend our people and we will use every lawful means to do so," Rice said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Merkel said Rice's assurances were "important" for her to hear and said the meeting, the highest-ranking official contact between Berlin and Washington since Merkel became chancellor last month, signaled a "good start" for future German-US relations.
Rice, however, declined to comment on the case of a German man, Khaled el-Masri, who was allegedly abducted to Afghanistan and imprisoned there for five months last year until the CIA realized it had the wrong man.
But Merkel said the US government had acknowledged it blundered over Masri, who plans to sue the CIA in a case to be filed in the US later yesterday.
"I'm pleased to say that we spoke about the individual case, which was accepted by the United States as a mistake, and so I'm very pleased the foreign minister [Rice] has reiterated that if mistakes are made, they must immediately be rectified," Merkel told a joint news conference.
Masri's case has caused a furore in Germany, fueled by a US newspaper report that the former interior minister was told of the case in May last year and agreed to a request from the US ambassador to keep it quiet.
Merkel said she would ask Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to report on the Masri case to the parliamentary committee responsible for supervising security services.
Rice was not challenged directly over reports that the US had run secret prisons in Eastern Europe, which Washington has refused to confirm or deny.
But she reiterated her vigorous defense of US methods in its war on 21st century militants.
"If you don't get to them before they commit their crimes, they will commit mass murder," she said. "We have an obligation to defend our people and we will use every lawful means to do so."
Rice said combating terrorism required close security cooperation, but intelligence methods could not be made public nor specific cases discussed.
"Without good intelligence, you can simply not protect innocent civilians from the kind of attacks we have experienced around the globe," she said.
She stressed that the US operated strictly "within the context of laws and our international obligations," an assurance welcomed by Merkel.
Europe's leading human rights watchdog is probing the press reports on CIA secret prisons, as well as flights by CIA planes across the continent, which it believes may have been used to covertly transport terrorist suspects.
The EU and at least eight of its members have sought clarification from Washington.
A new TV report on Monday cited current and former CIA officials saying al-Qaeda suspects had been held in Europe until last month, but then were then sent to a new CIA facility in the north African desert.