Mounting criticism of US maltreatment of hundreds of "war on terror" detainees, and new evidence that the CIA runs secret prisons around the world, have put the White House on the defensive over an alleged policy of permitting torture.
On Thursday the two houses of Congress began discussions to finalize a bill that would ban any torture by US forces. President George W. Bush has threatened to veto it, even as he has denied sanctioning torture.
The same day, a former top state department official told a radio program that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was behind directives which encouraged US forces's torture of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That followed a Washington Post report a day earlier that the CIA has operated a network of secret prisons in eight countries where about 30 people were being held and interrogated.
"Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long," the Post said.
Without conceding the prisons exist, on Wednesday Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, insisted that the government will do what is necessary to fight the war on terrorism.
However, Hadley said, "The president has been very clear we're doing that in a way that is consistent with our values and that is why he's been very clear that the United States will not torture."
But US political leaders and human rights groups say the evidence is mounting that the US has repeatedly violated human rights statutes and the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners in the war on terror, including more than 500 in the Guantanamo, Cuba US naval prison.
Former president Jimmy Carter denounced what he said was "a profound and radical change in the basic policies or moral values of our country" in reaction to the Post report.
"This is just one indication of what has been done under this administration to change the policies that have persisted all the way through our history," said Carter.
The White House appeared increasingly caught between its denials of a torture policy and its resistance to outside scrutiny of its detainee treatment.
Katherine Newell Bierman, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, noted that the Post's sources were CIA people themselves, rebelling against torture.
"This is not something necessarily that the people in the intelligence community really want to do," she said.
"This kind of policy paints the US into a corner. It's only a matter of time before this information comes out."
On Thursday Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told National Public Radio he had traced a trail of memos and directives authorizing detainee abuse directly to Cheney's staff.
"There was a visible audit trail from the vice president's office through the secretary of defense, down to the commanders in the field," authorizing practices that led directly to US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wilkerson said.
Another sign of trouble for the White House was the rejection earlier this week by UN Human Rights rapporteurs of a Pentagon invitation to observe conditions at Guatanamo.
The Pentagon's invitation came in the midst of a three-month-old hunger strike that defense lawyers say has involved as many as 200 detainees in protest over their indefinite detentions.
The rapporteurs refused to accept the offer because they would not be permitted to meet prisoners.
Alleged US torture policies are under challenge in several suits to force the government to accord basic rights to Guantanamo detainees, most of whom have been held for nearly four years without charges or access to legal representation.
A separate challenge looms in a defense funding amendment authored by Senator John McCain which would ban "cruel, inhuman and degrading" interrogations of detainees by US forces and agents under any conditions.
McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, proposed the amendment after an army captain testified that US soldiers routinely abused detainees in Iraq in 2003-04, having been told Geneva Conventions did not apply.
The Senate, dominated by Bush's own Republican party, passed the bill in October in a 90-9 vote.
On Wednesday the House of Representatives began reviewing the amendment.
Rather than embrace the law, however, Bush has threatened to veto it. And at the same time, Cheney has said that the law should exclude the CIA.
Doing so, said a human rights lawyer, would create a situation where people seized by one agency could be "rendered" to the CIA where they could disappear along with their rights.
"You have the opportunity for internal renditions", said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.
Copyright © 2005AFP