(News.com.au) - SIX years after the September 11 attacks and despite the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the US insists its war on terrorism justifies extreme forms of interrogation, including "waterboarding", and rejects any talk of torture.
During a Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, lawyer general nominee Michael Mukasey refused to address the legality of bringing a prisoner to near drowning to make him talk, drawing fire from opposition Democrats and human rights' groups.
"If he is still unsure whether the horrific practice of waterboarding is illegal, then he shouldn't be confirmed," said Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.
"The only reason to equivocate on waterboarding is to protect administration officials who authorised it from possible prosecution," he said.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US launched a detention and interrogation drive that allowed intelligence agents to employ tougher techniques on suspected terrorists that were kept strictly confidential.
The New York Times in early October published Justice Department documents that said it was not illegal to smack prisoners around, expose them to extreme temperatures or to simulated drowning, a technique used during Algeria's war of independence in the 1950s.
The Geneva Conventions expressly outlaw any form of moral and physical torture to extract information from prisoners of war and mandates that all combatants in detention "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment".
"This Government does not torture people. We stick to US law and our international obligations," President Bush has said, defending his war on terror.
"The procedures used in this program are safe, they are lawful and they are necessary," he said.
For Malcolm Nance, a former master instructor in the US Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, which trains US forces to resist interrogation practices like waterboarding, the latter is undoubtedly torture.
"Waterboarding is a torture technique. Waterboarding does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water," he wrote on his website www.smallwarsjournal.com.
"After Abu Ghraib and other undignified exposed incidents of murder and torture, we appear to have become no better than our opponents," Mr Nance added.
But for those supporting tougher interrogation techniques, the end justifies the means in the war on terror.
Former Central Intelligence Agency director John McLaughlin said the interrogation techniques used by US intelligence had protected American lives and prevented further terrorist attacks on US soil, adding that they were very rarely used and only on a small number of people.
The issue of torture has even divided candidates vying for the Republican Party's nomination to run in the 2008 presidential election.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, "it depends on how it's done", while Arizona Senator, Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain was more forceful.
"All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today (in Burma)," he told The New York Times.
"It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture," he said.