WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has a deliberate strategy of abusing terror suspects during interrogations, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in its annual report on the treatment of people in more than 70 countries.
The human rights group based its conclusions mostly on statements by senior administration officials in the past year, and said President Bush's reassurances that the United States does not torture suspects were deceptive and rang hollow.
"In 2005 it became disturbingly clear that the abuse of detainees had become a deliberate, central part of the Bush administration's strategy of interrogating terrorist suspects," the report said.
On a trip to Europe last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told foreign leaders that cruel and degrading interrogation methods were forbidden for all U.S. personnel at home and abroad. She provided little detail, however, about which practices were banned and other specifics.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday he had only seen news accounts of the report, but he rejected its conclusions.
"It appears to be based more on a political agenda than facts," he said. "The United States does more than any country in the world to advance freedom and promote human rights. ...The focus should be more on those who are violating human rights and denying people their human rights."
In a separate report, the organization strongly criticized three insurgent groups in Iraq — Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic Army — for targeting civilians with car bombs and suicide bombers in mosques, markets, bus stations.
However, the group said the abuses "took place in the context of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ensuing military occupation that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and sparked the emergence of insurgent groups."
Human Rights Watch has criticized the Bush administration's war against terrorism before, registering concern that abuses in the name of fighting terrorism were unjustified and counterproductive. In other reports, the group has protested that the Bush administration's promotion of democracy was applied narrowly and missed allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that were due criticism.
The latest report taking aim at the Bush administration said that the president's repeated assurances that U.S. interrogators do not torture prisoners studiously avoid mentioning that international law prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners.
The report said that Alberto Gonzales — while still the nominee to become attorney general — claimed in Senate testimony in January 2005 the power to use cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as long as the prisoner was a non-American held outside the United States.
"Other governments obviously subject detainees to such treatment or worse, but they do so clandestinely," the report said. "The Bush administration is the only government in the world known to claim this power openly, as a matter of official policy, and to pretend that it is lawful."
Last fall, Gonzales submitted documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying "it is the policy of the administration to abide by" the relevant portion of the torture treaty overseas, "even if such compliance is not legally required."
In December, Bush bowed to congressional and international pressure and signed legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to forbid harsh treatment of detainees. He did so after initially threatening to veto such legislation, and after Vice President Dick Cheney unsuccessfully lobbied legislators to kill the measure or at least exempt the Central Intelligence Agency.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview that he was concerned that, in a statement Bush issued when signing the bill, the president suggested he retains "commander in chief authority" to order abusive interrogations.
The report said that CIA Director Porter Goss last March justified an age-old torture technique called water-boarding, in which the victim believes he is about to drown. Last August, in Senate testimony, Timothy Flanigan, a former deputy White House counsel, would not rule out mock executions, the report said.
Evidence shows that abusive interrogation was a conscious policy choice by senior U.S. government officials and cannot be reduced to the misdeeds of a few low-ranking soldiers, the report said.
The report claimed abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at detention centers elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The report said Britain was threatening to send suspects to countries likely to torture them. Both the United States and Britain are claiming the practice, known as rendition, can be justified if the receiving country promises not to abuse the suspects.
Canada, meanwhile, was criticized as trying to dilute a newly drafted U.N. treaty to outlaw the practice of countries' detaining people secretly and without acknowledgment.
Many countries, including Uzbekistan, Russia and China, use the "war on terrorism" to attack political opponents as Islamic terrorists, the report said.