There can be no ambivalence over the torture and abuse of prisoners

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Of all the many abuses that have resulted from George Bush's "war on terror", none has been quite as disturbing as the use of torture by the American military. We had heard hazy reports of vicious and degrading treatment in Afghanistan and at the American detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, but it was not until photographs of the disgusting abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison surfaced that it became apparent to what extent the US military had debased itself.

Of all the many abuses that have resulted from George Bush's "war on terror", none has been quite as disturbing as the use of torture by the American military. We had heard hazy reports of vicious and degrading treatment in Afghanistan and at the American detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, but it was not until photographs of the disgusting abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison surfaced that it became apparent to what extent the US military had debased itself.

Terrible as they are, we ought to be thankful that those photographs emerged. Had they not been leaked, it is doubtful that Specialist Charles Graner would have been called to account for his appalling mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. The same is true for the six other US servicemen and women implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal. And, although sadly to a much lesser extent, the US military and its political masters.

Charles Graner was portrayed in his court martial as a rogue agent - someone who decided, without prompting, to instigate a regime of sadism and humiliation in the prison. But evidence from an ex-military servicewoman at the trial suggests that Graner was following orders from intelligence officers. In other words, what happened was not the work of a few "bad apples", but part of a general policy of torture and humiliation. The implications of this are, needless to say, terrifying and raise profound questions.

Coincidentally, President Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, appeared before a US Senate committee last week. What emerged from those hearings suggests that the Bush administration has learnt nothing from Abu Ghraib. The US government's public stance on the use of torture remains worryingly ambivalent. Mr Gonzales refused to give a clear negative answer when asked whether, in his opinion, torture is illegal under any circumstances. It ought to be noted, too, that in his previous post as the President's chief legal adviser, Mr Gonzales chaired several meetings at which specific interrogation techniques were discussed, including threatening to bury detainees alive. Despite this, few people doubt that the Senate will endorse this man.

Although the four Britons in Guantanamo Bay appear to be set for release, there is no sign that the American archipelago of international prisons is contracting. Reports emerged last week of plans to establish US jails in countries such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The reasons for this are all too clear: the US government wants to minimise scrutiny of its interrogation techniques. This same impulse was behind the decision of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, to approve the secret holding of "ghost detainees" in Iraq - to keep them off the register of prisoners shown to the Red Cross.

The US government is evading the charge that it has sanctioned a covert policy of torture. America is fast losing any claim to moral superiority in its cack-handed "war against terror", and its claim to be an upholder of the international rule of law is ringing increasingly hollow.

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