The promise of imminent release for four British detainees held at the notorious US prison at Guantánamo Bay is obviously welcome, but it is only a tiny exception in the surge of bad news from the Bush team on the human rights front. The first few days of the new year have produced two shocking exposures already.
One is the revelation that the administration sees the US not just as a self-appointed global policeman, but also as the world's prison warden. It is thinking of building jails in foreign countries, mainly ones with grim human rights records, to which it can secretly transfer detainees (unconvicted by any court) for the rest of their lives - a kind of global gulag beyond the scrutiny of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or any other independent observers or lawyers.
The other horror is the light shone on the views of Alberto Gonzales, the White House nominee to be the chief law officer, the attorney general. At his Senate confirmation hearings last week he was revealed to be a man who not only refuses to rule out torture under any circumstances but also, in his capacity as White House counsel over the past few years, chaired several meetings at which specific interrogation techniques were discussed. As Edward Kennedy pointed out, and Gonzales did not deny, they included the threat of burial alive and water-boarding, under which the detainee is strapped to a board, forcibly pushed under water, wrapped in a wet towel, and made to believe he could drown.
Since its establishment after 9/11, the US camp for foreigners at Guantánamo Bay has become a beacon of unfreedom, a kind of grisly competitor to the Statue of Liberty in the shopfront of authentic American images. The trickle of releases of prisoners from its cages has brought direct testimony of the horrors which go on there. So it is no wonder that the Bush administration would like to find less visible places to hold prisoners, and keep them there for ever so that they cannot tell the world.
The Guantánamo prisoners are held by the department of defense, but under the new scheme most foreign detainees are expected to be in the hands of the CIA, which submits to less congressional scrutiny and offers the Red Cross no access. They include hundreds of people who have been arrested in recent weeks in Falluja and other Iraqi cities.
According to the Washington Post, which broke the story last week, one proposal is to have the US build new prisons in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Officials of those countries would run the prisons, and would have to allow the state department to "monitor human rights compliance".
It is a laughable proposition, since the whole purpose of the exercise is to minimize scrutiny. CIA agents would have the right to question the detainees, with or without the aid of foreign interrogators, as they already do at other off-limits prisons at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, on ships at sea, in Jordan and Egypt, and at Diego Garcia.
The US policy of lending detainees to other countries' jailers and torturers, known as "rendition", began during the "war on drugs" as a way of arresting alleged Latin American narco-barons and softening them up for trial in the US. It has expanded enormously under the "war on terror". As one CIA officer told the Washington Post, "the whole idea has become a corruption of renditions. It's not rendering to justice. It's kidnapping."
He could have added that it's kidnapping for life. A senior US official told the New York Times last week that three-quarters of the 550 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay no longer have any intelligence of value. But they will not be released out of concern that they pose a continuing threat to the US. "You're basically keeping them off the battlefield, and, unfortunately in the war on terrorism, the battlefield is everywhere," he said.
Since the attack on Falluja, the US holds 325 non-Iraqis in custody, many of them Syrians and Saudis. Questioned by the Senate's judiciary committee, Gonzales said that the justice department believes that non-Iraqis captured in Iraq are not protected by the Geneva conventions, which prevent prisoners being transferred out of the country in which they are held.
It was revealed last year that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, had approved the secret holding of "ghost detainees" in Iraq. They were kept off the registers that were shown to the Red Cross and therefore lost the chance of being visited or having other rights. Now many new prisoners will be candidates for a deeper category of invisibility by being sent for detention in secret locations abroad.
While making bland statements during his Senate appearance that he found torture abhorrent, Gonzales gave no clear assurances that its practice would stop. As White House counsel he approved an administration memorandum against torture in August 2002 which was so narrow that it appeared to define it only as treatment that led to "dying under torment". In other words, if a victim survived, he could not have been tortured.
The memo also claimed that torture only occurs when the intent is to cause pain. If pain is intentionally used to gain information or a confession, that is not torture. Thanks to this narrow definition of what is forbidden, US officials have been systematically using inhumane treatment on prisoners - far beyond the few so-called bad apples exposed by the photographs from Abu Ghraib - while saying it did not amount to torture.
A few days before Gonzales's Senate hearings, the justice department hastily rewrote the memo so that a wider category of techniques are defined as torture, and thereby prohibited. But at the hearings Gonzales refused to give a clear negative answer to the question whether, in his view, American troops or interrogators could legally engage in torture under any circumstances.
One of the glories of the hearings was the appearance of Douglas Johnson, director of the Center for Victims of Torture. He argued that the new memo fails to give clear guidance on what the appropriate standards for interrogation and detention are. He also pointed out that torture does not yield reliable information and corrupts its perpetrators.
Psychological torture was more damaging than physical torture, he said. Interviews with victims show that depression and recurrent nightmares decades later more often relate to memories of mock executions (of the "water-boarding" type) and scenarios of humiliation than to actual physical abuse.
That these points might have impressed the man Bush wants to have as America's top law officer is not to be expected. Nor does anyone in Washington expect the Senate to refuse to confirm him for the job. Happy New War on Terror 2005.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005