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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in Europe to try to rebuild battered trans-Atlantic relations. That task has become exponentially more difficult in the aftermath of new revelations that allege European complicity in the torture of suspects in the war against terror. Ms. Rice must quiet the growing furor if she is to make any progress. The controversy will not go away, however: The real problem is U.S. policy regarding torture. Washington’s refusal to disavow the use of torture, in any and all circumstances, and its willingness to engage in wordplay instead has done terrific harm to its moral authority and leadership and, according to most experts, serves no purpose.

The war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq has deeply divided the United States and several of its European allies. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was widely seen as riding a wave of anti-Americanism to win re-election three years ago. His replacement by Ms. Angela Merkel, after Germany’s last election, was expected to help heal the strains.

Realizing that goal has been set back by revelations that the U.S. has used secret prisons in several European states to hold and interrogate suspected terrorists after they had been seized — in a process known as “rendition” — in various countries. The possibility that those interrogations included torture has introduced new strains in Washington’s relations with its European allies. European governments are squeezed between two uncomfortable choices: Either they knew about the renditions and were complicit in possibly illegal activity; or they did not, in which case they look ineffectual and ignorant about practices on their own territory.

Neither alternative is palatable. For Ms. Merkel, the situation is made even more unpleasant by reports — since confirmed by the U.S. — that a German citizen had been seized and tortured, as a result of a case of mistaken identity.

Facing a firestorm of criticism, Ms. Rice first stuck to the line that the U.S. did not tolerate torture and would not render prisoners to countries that did. She insisted, however, that the war against terrorism required aggressive intelligence gathering. Moreover, she said, Europe has benefited from U.S. policy and the information acquired has saved many European lives.

That argument did not win over the critics. Cognizant of the difficulties, she then articulated a new position, explaining that U.S. interrogators are prohibited from using “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment of detainees on U.S. territory and anywhere else. The embrace of language in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. ratified in 1994, should help end suspicions surrounding U.S. policy. Up to now, American statements have used a lawyerly parsing of language that would seem to leave leeway for torture.

It is hard to calculate the damage this controversy has done to the U.S. image in the world. American leadership since World War II has been based on moral authority. The attempt to define away the problem of torture — by insisting that certain behavior does not constitute torture despite all indications, including common sense, to the contrary (such as the assertion that the U.S. president is exempt from internationally accepted treaties and conventions) — only further undermines the U.S. position. It has cost Washington credibility and authority, and made it more difficult to build the coalitions needed to effectively combat terrorism.

Some argue that the European position — and it is not theirs alone — is unrealistic. Such moralism is ill-suited to the reality of contemporary terrorism. Fighting this scourge, they say, requires new rules and policies. Yet there is no evidence that torture is an effective way to get reliable information. In fact, experience shows that intelligence extracted by duress is often flawed. When combined with the possibility that mistakes can be made, as has already happened, then the case against torture — no matter how it is defined — seems insuperable.

This dispute will not go away. There are already several European investigations into the secret CIA flights through Europe and the reports of secret prisons. Politicians may be uncomfortable, but European publics are demanding answers.

At the same time, U.S. Sen. John McCain continues his fight to win an unequivocal U.S. condemnation of torture. As a former prisoner of war who was tortured while in captivity, he knows better than anyone else the costs and benefits of such behavior. His judgment on both the practical and ethical implications of torture is simple: It cannot be justified.

There can be no defense of torture by civilized societies. That clarity separates us from those we are fighting and is the ultimate source of our strength in this fight.

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