Henry Porter: The electrodes' switch is in Washington

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The story of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US and British forces is rightly gaining a demonic momentum. As a US Army report published by The New Yorker followed revelations by CBS and the allegations by the Daily Mirror, President Bush and Tony Blair must be wondering when it is going to end. It is now clear that not only did they fail to find weapons of mass destruction, but that their fall-back justification for the invasion, that of bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq, is little more than a sham.

The story of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US and British forces is rightly gaining a demonic momentum. As a US Army report published by The New Yorker followed revelations by CBS and the allegations by the Daily Mirror, President Bush and Tony Blair must be wondering when it is going to end. It is now clear that not only did they fail to find weapons of mass destruction, but that their fall-back justification for the invasion, that of bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq, is little more than a sham.

The abuse, which is described by the US Army report as "sadistic, blatant and wanton", includes beatings, rape and serious assaults with chemical lights. To the Middle East, it all provides a stark symbol of subjugation. Whether or not people in Basra and Baghdad are better off than they were is no longer the point. The gruesome irony that these terrible things occurred at Abu Ghraib, the very prison used by Saddam Hussein's torturers, will not be lost on Arabs.

The Americans have been negligent in the extreme to allow this situation. Try as we might to forget these episodes, we can be sure that they will live on in Arab minds for a generation. Al-Qa'ida and Hamas could not have designed a better recruiting poster.

The Abu Ghraib portfolio is shocking, but not at base so surprising. Since the "war on terror" was inaugurated in the dust of 11 September 2001, the US has permitted itself a much more relaxed interpretation of civil liberties. An individual's rights are not defined by any absolute standard of decency but by his or her allegiance. Both public and media has squared the national conscience on the question of prisoners being held without trial or legal representation in Guan-tanamo Bay. Even the arrest of civilians on the mainland, their detention without explanation or hope of release, has caused little stir.

Quite apart from underlining how things have changed since 9/11, it is clear that if the US is prepared to ignore the liberties defined in the Bill of Rights of its own citizens, it doesn't require special deliberation before foreigners are abused on their own soil by US Army personnel and their contracted thugs.

I hope the same conclusion cannot be drawn about the state of Britain's national conscience. Judging by the swift reactions of General Sir Mike Jackson and No 10, we are at least taking the allegations very seriously. Yet we are daily conceding liberties such as the universal right to trial and I believe this largely unprotested trend will not be reflected well in our armies serving abroad.

In the course of researching a novel, I came across alarming evidence of "arm's-length" torture being committed by those acting on behalf of the US. A contracted special forces mercenary, who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq in both military and intelligence roles, avoided the question when I first asked him about the interrogation of suspects in the "war on terror" over lunch in London. Then he conceded that "maybe they were slapped around a little".

"Does that include the use of truncheons and electricity?" I asked. He looked over his habitual dark glasses so we had eye contact. "Who's to know what foreign governments do to their citizens? That is not the responsibility of the USG." The implication was utterly clear.

So far, we have evidence only of "stress and duress" ­ torture lite, as it is called by the professionals ­ but there are grounds to believe that the US has used a number of proxy nations to go the whole way with terrorist suspects. There are rumours that Egypt, Jordan and Syria have all complied with American wishes in the interrogation of suspects shipped to them by the US. This practice started before 9/11 and, in one case documented by The Wall Street Journal, five men were flown from Albania to Egypt where they were tortured before two were put to death.

What this means is that the torturers employed by these nations ­ often Arab freelancers ­ are supplied with questions by US terrorist hunters in the hope of gaining what are eerily known as "extreme renditions". The electrodes may not be applied by US citizens; the rubber truncheons may not be wielded by "our boys", but there is a sufficient dialogue between the torturer and the terrorist hunter for us to attribute responsibility for unthinkable suffering to US policies.

At the American base in Bagram, Afghanistan ­ the death of a detainee there has never been satisfactorily explained by the US military ­ there are suspicions that the Americans have a more direct responsibility. These are hard to prove because there are no pictures. Still, we may fairly conclude that if the sexual humiliation and terrorising of prisoners went on under the nose of General Janis Karpinksi in Iraq, the equivalent or worse is happening at Bagram, centre of operations for an almost forgotten campaign.

All of which makes George Bush's shocked reaction to the pictures laudably carried by CBS's 60 Minutes look pretty hypocritical. Yet the majority of Americans will believe the official line that this was a one-off, much as the British are inclined to credit the few-rotten-apples theory about their troops. The US electorate may believe that this was largely the work of contractors and may even credit the excuse offered by serving personnel, that they had no training in the articles of the Geneva Convention.

For friends of America, among whom I still hesitantly count myself, this has been a catastrophic week. The damage is enormous and probably irretrievable. George Bush can now respond only by formally renouncing all such practices and, more important, the connection with Middle Eastern states that have tortured on behalf of the world's only superpower.

Henry Porter is the author of 'Empire State', a novel set in the post-9/11 world which deals with the issue of torture by the US

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