In a new attempt to defuse the row over US treatment of terror suspects, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, has declared that the CIA and the US military are forbidden to use torture both in America and around the world.
Human rights groups said any "concession" was cosmetic, and her aides said her remarks were a clarification, not a policy shift - while some Nato foreign ministers signalled they would take up the issue when they meet Ms Rice in Brussels today.
Speaking in Kiev on the penultimate stop of her European trip, Ms Rice said US obligations under the existing international convention against torture "extend to US personnel wherever they are". Her remarks were her third attempt in as many days to fend off fierce criticism in Europe and beyond of alleged practices by the US including the "rendition" of captured suspects to countries where they were likely to face torture, and the alleged operation by the CIA of secret prisons abroad.
Back home too, sparks continue to fly over the issue. Signs are growing that Congress will join the Senate in demanding a specific legal ban on "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners, as stipulated in the Convention Against Torture signed by the US.
Ms Rice has been insisting that this is already the case. But - at least until yesterday - congressional action was being resisted by the White House, with Vice-President Dick Cheney arguing that unless the CIA is exempted from the provision, the government's hands will be tied in the fight against terrorism.
The stance has not only drawn bitter criticism at home, casting doubt on George Bush's claim that "the US does not torture", but it has undercut Ms Rice's efforts to convince sceptical audiences abroad that Washington respects international norms.
The rough ride that Ms Rice has suffered this week is the latest instalment of a controversy dating back to 11 September 2001. Arguing the overriding need to get information on future terrorist attacks, the White House in effect jettisoned the Geneva Conventions to gain maximum latitude in interrogating prisoners. After a notorious January 2002 memo in which the serving White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, described the conventions as "quaint", the Bush administration steadily narrowed the definition of torture.
The following June, despite strenuous objections from Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State at the time, Mr Bush reportedly signed a presidential order giving the CIA wide new powers, including the right to run secret prisons abroad. The harsh CIA methods spread to sections of the military, leading to the allegations of abuse at Guantanamo Bay and the documented horrors of Abu Ghraib.
Ultimately, everything hinges on the precise definition of torture - whether this administration believes that techniques used by the CIA, including simulated drowning, the holding of prisoners naked in freezing conditions or systematic sexual humiliation, amount to torture.
"We need to know whether they are defining torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in the way that most people have defined it for many, many years," Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said. "My impression is that, for them, only something that leaves physical scars counts as torture."Reuse content