The real message in the Amnesty report

U.S. officials were wrong to dismiss out of hand Amnesty International's report ''Guantánamo and Beyond: The Continuing Pursuit of Unchecked Executive Power,'' which described the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a ''gulag.'' President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the description was ''absurd.'' Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Guantánamo is a ``model facility.''

Let's be clear. The human-rights group badly overstated the situation when it compared U.S. military-prison encampments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and other places to the brutal, forced-labor camps that Soviet communists used to warehouse political prisoners. But it is a mistake for officials to focus only on the single ''gulag'' reference in the exhaustive 300-page report and not on its substantive assertion that U.S. handling of ''war on terror'' prisoners erodes our country's moral authority.

International law

Gen. Myers said that the report was ''absolutely irresponsible.'' Secretary Rice said: ``The United States of America is one of the strongest defenders of human rights around the world. We've fought hard and worked hard, even in the circumstances of a new kind of war, to treat people humanely.''

These officials are referring to U.S. behavior when it adheres to lofty principles, which, in fact, is most of the time. But Amnesty asserts that by detaining more than 70,000 war-on-terror prisoners without charge or trial, without access to lawyers or a chance to challenge their detention, the United States is ignoring international law and violating its own principles.

Only after an extraordinary ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court have some overtures been made to allow Guantánamo detainees access to hearings and legal advice. But for the most part, the United States continues to treat most detainees as if each one was the ''worst of the worst'' among terrorists who hate America and are committed to its destruction. However, Amnesty's report documents countless abuses of prisoners in U.S. custody. And Amnesty challenges the United States to allow an independent investigation of prison conditions.

Humiliating detainees

Meanwhile, as White House officials wrap themselves in the high ideals that America always has championed, the images and sounds of U.S. soldiers beating, harassing and humiliating detainees at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other facilities are reviewed on Internet websites by millions of people around the world. No amount of posturing by U.S. officials can change the reality that those images convey, nor the animus that they sow.

This is why the United States cannot afford to mistreat a single detainee. Unfortunately, the policy of this administration is to ignore international conventions and make up the rules as it sees fit.