Torturers? Who, Us? While George W Bush Thinks Everything Is Just Fine, Guantanamo and the Abuse of Terror Suspects Are Dividing His Cabinet and Corroding His Presidency

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How civilised life in America really is. "In our system each individual is presumed innocent and entitled to due process and a fair trial," President Bush reminded us just hours after it was announced that Lewis "Scooter" Libby--Vice-President Dick Cheney's adviser on national security matters as well as his chief of staff--was to be charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. Days later, Bush looked the world's media in the eye, after a five-day swing through Latin America, and declared: "We do not torture."

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Bush lives in such a bubble these days, as removed from reality as Richard Nixon was in his final weeks as president, that I suspect he believes both statements to be true. It took his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to put him right on torture--or what people in the administration prefer to call "enhanced interrogation techniques". "The president has said that we are going to do whatever we do in accordance with the law," he said. But in practice, it is "difficult" for the administration, he went on, both to follow the president's guidance and to "discharge our responsibility to protect the American people from terrorist attack".

Even Bush's most loyal lieutenants are at each other's throats, and the issue beginning to divide them publicly is torture, with constitutional crises looming fast. Poor Hadley, an ultra-loyalist, can hardly contain his exasperation with his boss and increasingly sounds like a sorrowful father having to explain the words of a wayward, dim-witted son. And Cheney took advantage of Bush's absence in Latin America to drive in his motorcade up Capitol Hill to furiously lobby Republican congressmen and women over continuing to support America's right to torture, particularly in the network of "detention centres" that, we are told, the CIA is operating around the world, so that the US can carry out enhanced interrogations without being impeded by constitutional rights and laws and Geneva Conventions and tiresome things like that. Lining up behind Cheney, naturally, is the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld.

But there is now an opposing flank in the administration, led by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Gordon England. They argue that even fudged words of support for torture, such as Hadley's, are disastrous for America's image in the world, and that the Bush administration must renounce it unreservedly.

The battle is even more ferocious just a step down the hierarchy: David Addington, Libby's successor as Cheney's chief of staff, left a Pentagon official "bruised and bloody" a few days ago because the draft of a Pentagon briefing paper used the same Euro-wimp words as the Geneva Conventions in defining torture.

Thus Condi and Rummy, to say nothing of Dick, are now at loggerheads. The White House, in the form of Karl Rove, is privately briefing that Cheney's influence is on the wane and that Rumsfeld will go soon any way--but the truth, as all but Bush know, is that the administration's political and legal nightmares on torture and prisoner abuse are only just beginning.

Take Bush's words on Libby's entitlement to legal justice. It is taken for granted, certainly in the US but also in Britain, that the United States would never lock up its own citizens without due process and a fair trial. That is a bedrock constitutional right, as the Supreme Court has ruled. True, blind eyes may have been turned to the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo abuses--but that is because the victims have been foreigners and the abuses carried out abroad. The British media widely reported that Tony Blair's proposal to hold suspects for 90 days without trial could never happen in the US, as the constitution would make it impossible.

Tell that to an American called Jose Padilla, who was arrested at O'Hare Airport in Chicago in May 2002 and who has been incarcerated ever since--without ever appearing in court, being charged with anything, or even being given a lawyer. …