Lawyers for the Bush administration concluded last year that the President was not bound by international laws banning the torture of prisoners and that anyone carrying out his orders could not be prosecuted, it was revealed yesterday.
A classified report prepared just weeks before Mr Bush ordered his forces to invade Iraq concluded that no international law was more important than "obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens".
While it is not clear precisely what effect the legal ruling had on the interrogation of prisoners captured in Iraq, its revelation was seized on last night by those who claim the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere was not an isolated episode but rather part of a systematic approach to dealing with detainees.
"It's doing away with international law," said Reed Brody of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. "It's one more piece that shows this pattern of abuse at Abu Ghraib ... resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to throw out the rules."
The report, a draft of which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal, had been prepared by the staff of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, to answer complaints of commanders at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp that they were not obtaining "actionable" intelligence from alleged Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters held there.
The paper was prepared by a working group headed by Air Force General Counsel Mary Walker. It outlined a number of US laws and international treaties that forbid torture but said these could be legally side-stepped in the needs of national security. In November 2001 Mr Bush signed an executive order that established military tribunals to deal with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, who have not been afforded rights granted to prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions.
The document said that "the prohibition against torture must be construed as inappropriate to interrogations undertaken pursuant to [President Bush's] commander-in-chief authority". It added: "[The Justice Department has] concluded that it could not bring a criminal prosecution against a defendant who had acted pursuant to an exercise of the President's constitutional power."
The working group's conclusions appear to directly contradict international law. For instance, the Convention against Torture, ratified by the US in 1994, states that "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war of a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency may be invoked as justification for torture ... [and that orders from superiors] may not be invoked as a justification for torture".
Michael Ratner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said: "The claim that the commander-in-chief power includes the authority to use torture should be unheard of in this day and age. Can one imagine the reaction if those on trial for the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia had tried this defence?"Reuse content