America - Andrew Stephen on why Bush can't let Rumsfeld go

Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney appear a sorry twosome, unable to grasp unpalatable realit

Poor Donald Rumsfeld. There are 18,000 military investigations into alleged wrongdoing by his armed forces every year, he says, so how could the defence secretary be expected to know about this piddling little one? There are 3,000 courts martial every year as well: is it really the case that people believe he should master the details of each one? "The system worked," says Rummy airily.

This was one of the leitmotifs of Rumsfeld's all-day evidence before the Senate and House armed services committees when he testified on 7 May about all the wretched goings-on at the Abu Ghraib prison. I watched every minute, and citing those 18,000 investigations formed Rummy's main attempt to shirk responsibility. Nor did he tire of saying that the CD-Rom containing such miserable images of American torture had been "illegally" handed over to the media - bad forces at work here again, you see - as though that somehow helped mitigate their content. His military right-hand man Air Force General Richard Myers also told how, during April, he had asked none other than Dan Rather of CBS News to suppress the images from our screens. But after CBS pliantly delayed running them for a fortnight before unleashing them on the world, Myers heatedly denied to one senator that he had ever tried to suppress anything at all.

I must say that Rumsfeld, 71, has colossal chutzpah. The first official inkling of trouble over Abu Ghraib, assuming we conveniently forget the secret International Red Cross reports that castigated the US last October and which were in the possession of the administration then, came on 13 January this year. It was then that Specialist Joseph Darby slipped an anonymous note detailing the atrocities under an officer's door. Three days later a press release, buried in other information issued by Central Command in Baghdad, said: "An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a coalition forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages." To the doubtless everlasting regret of the likes of Rumsfeld and Myers, the investigation was put in the hands of one Major General Antonio Taguba, who proceeded with a painfully honest investigation and report.

Bush, I gather from people at the Pentagon, was told of the brewing trouble as early as mid-January, but showed no interest in it until the pictures surfaced in the media. Taguba's report was in the hands of Myers as early as March, but Rumsfeld did not understand just how bad things were until he viewed the pictures - the ones that have been made public plus others which are worse - the night before he gave evidence to the congressional committees. It was the pictures that did all the damage, you see; mere descriptions of torture counted for little. In this televisual world, the disgraces could otherwise have been finessed and passed into oblivion with a few smart-alecky words from Rummy and co.

I am sure this is the reason why Middle America - to say nothing of official Washington - has been so traumatised by the pictures we have seen so far. The image of a pert, 21-year-old woman from America's finest blithely leading a naked Iraqi prisoner by a collar and leash really is worth a thousand words. But Dick Cheney persists in saying Rumsfeld is the finest defence secretary the US has ever had, and Bush said last Monday that Rummy is doing a "superb job". All of which means that we can conclude that Bush and Cheney are hopelessly out of touch with the realities of present-day Iraq, or that they are somehow complicit in the whole mess.

I suspect the latter, I am afraid. Bob Woodward's new book Plan of Attack, which received unparalleled co-operation from Bush and all those in authority under him, paints Vice-President Cheney as being rabid over Iraq, so much so, that it raises serious questions about Cheney's fitness to hold office in any administration. In the light of events, Rumsfeld emerges as wrong about practically everything to do with post-invasion Iraq. The pair appear a sorry twosome, unable to grasp unpalatable realities staring them in the face.

Rumsfeld first made clear his disdain for all the international hyperventilation when he pronounced that the Geneva Conventions about prisoners of war simply did not apply to the US armed forces in Afghanistan. At the 7 May hearings, he whined that this involved only al-Qaeda prisoners, not captured members of the Taliban. He did not say who had designated men so far picked up by US forces in Afghanistan as members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or (for that matter) as totally innocent human beings. The real situation he was trying to obscure is that, against all international pacts, the Bush administration had appointed its armed forces to be policeman, judge, jury and jailer in Afghanistan.

It was not long before these attitudes spread to Guantanamo and to Iraq itself. At Guantanamo, 600 prisoners of various nationalities are now held indefinitely without trial or access to any courts. When they were first airlifted to Cuba in goggles and shackles, we had a glimpse of how they were already being treated. Meanwhile, two full US citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, are being held indefinitely without trial in military brigs inside the US. Because they have been designated "enemy combatants", they have no right to a lawyer or access to courts. Though at least Padilla is probably a very bad man, we know little of how either is being treated.

The administration is now attempting to blur the distinctions between those responsible for the atrocities of 11 September, the handful of supporters of Saddam Hussein left in Iraq, and the so-called insurgents in Iraq of the past year. It suits the US government to blend them all into one mix of Arab wrongdoers who deserve the severest punishment, if not torture. I use the word advisedly: making a hooded man stand for hours on a small box with electric wires attached to his hands and feet and what one account delicately called "other extremities" of his body - and telling him that he will be electrocuted if he falls off - must surely come under the definition of torture.

Lest I be accused of playing the conspiracist over this, I should draw your attention to the words of J Cofer Black, until recently the CIA's counter-terrorism chief and now the State Department's co-ordinator for terrorism. In 2002, he told a congressional committee on the handling of detainees: "This is a highly classified area, but I have to say . . . all you need to know in dealing with terrorists, there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. And after 9/11, the gloves came off." Vincent Cannistraro, another former chief CIA anti-terrorism officer, says that "9/11 was the catalyst for changing a lot of the attitudes towards interrogation and what was permissible and what was not . . . there is an incentive to go on and torture".

The sexual nature of much of the torture we know about so far is, I fear, another unique product of America. Perhaps the pornography industry here, which earns $4bn annually, is to blame for the fact that most of the torture involved graphic sexual humiliation. It is not as though the US government has been all that reluctant about its methods of officially approved interrogation: in April 2003, it formally detailed in a classified document the application of "sensory assault" to prisoners at Guantanamo, including detainees being continually exposed to loud music and bright lights, and the men's alternate exposure to heat and light. It makes the sensory deprivation used by the British in Northern Ireland seem rather tame.

And so we must wait and see whether we will see more, and even worse, photos and videos from Iraq. The enemy has been dehumanised in the perception of these young Americans - even though 90 per cent of the Iraqis jailed were innocent and later freed - and thus inhuman treatment becomes routinely justifiable in response. Bush and Rumsfeld insist that a tiny minority are to blame. But they themselves created the climate in which sadistic torture became the norm at what was already one of the world's most notorious prisons. Rummy and Myers, meanwhile, seem more concerned that the pictures and the story they told got out than about the torture itself. Hurry up and go, Rummy - and don't come back, please.