WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS - CIA spymaster John Brennan was to confront his agency’s legacy of torture head-on Thursday, staging a rare news conference to defend his officers’ brutal response to the September 11 attacks. This week’s detailed revelations about the US intelligence agency’s abuse of Al-Qaeda suspects in a network of secret prisons around the world has triggered global outrage and demands for justice.

It is also a political crisis for President Barack Obama, who halted his predecessor George W. Bush’s torture programme when he came to office but defends America’s spies as patriots. In inviting the press to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Brennan faces the tricky task of defending his agency’s reputation without breaking with a president keen to put the issue behind him. Republican veterans of the Bush administration face no such dilemma. They have taken to the airwaves to argue the case, dismissed in this week’s Senate report, that torture saved lives.

Far from denying allegations that have caused global revulsion, leaders like former vice president Dick Cheney insist ‘enhanced interrogation’ led US spies to Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

Obama has said the torture was contrary to American values, but has refused to say whether he agrees with the CIA argument that the program allowed them to identify Bin Laden’s courier. He was ambushed with a question on torture’s effectiveness at the beginning of a meeting of his export council and dodged it, protesting: ‘We are talking about exports here.’

Earlier, his spokesman Josh Earnest had refused a ‘yes or no’ question as to whether Obama believes that torture saves lives. ‘The most important question is: Should we have done it? And the answer to that question is ‘no’,’ he said. ‘The president does not believe that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was good for our national security.’ According to the long-delayed US Senate report released Tuesday, former president Bush only learned details of it in 2006, four years after it started in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Moreover, the United States’ use of torture when interrogating prisoners captured in its ‘War on Terror’ has damaged the country’s moral high ground and created a set-back in the global fight against the condemnable practice, a United Nations human rights expert has said.

‘The example set by the United States on the use of torture has been a big draw-back in the fight against such practice in many other countries throughout the world,’ Juan Mendez, the UN’s Special Reporter on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said in a statement on Thursday. As a Special Reporter with a mandate to visit numerous countries across the globe, he added that now member states were either implicitly or explicitly telling him ‘Why look at us? If the US tortures, why can’t we do it?’

‘We have lost a little bit of the moral high ground,’ he added. ‘But it can be regained and it should be regained.’ Mendez’s comments follow the long-awaited release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation techniques which concluded that US high officials promoted, encouraged and allowed the use of torture after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the years under President George Bush’s administration. The practice, known as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ was terminated by President Barack Obama.  

The Special Rapporteur commended the ‘thorough and frank’ report, particularly as it managed to break through a wall of silence put into place by the former administration which, he said, had ‘aggressively and repeatedly rejected the principles of transparency and accountability and maintains the pattern of denial and defence.’

‘It is the Government’s responsibility to let the US people know what happened during the years when extraordinary rendition, secret detention, and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques were practiced, and to ensure accountability and transparency to the fullest extent possible.’ Mendez noted that despite the US’ continued use of torture in interrogating prisoners suspected of affiliations with terrorist groups, the practice was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees. Instead, he added, the torture programmes had made the matter of terrorism worse and provided ‘a breeding ground for more terrorism.’ ‘As a nation that has publicly affirmed its belief that respect for truth advances respect for the rule of law, and as a nation that frequently calls for transparency and accountability in other countries, the United States must rise to meet the standards it has set both for itself and for others.’

But, speaking to Fox News, Cheney denied Bush was kept out of the loop. He said the then-president ‘was in fact an integral part of the program and he had to approve it.’ Detainees were beaten, waterboarded - some of them dozens of times - and humiliated through the painful use of medically unnecessary ‘rectal feeding’ and ‘rectal rehydration’. Asked if Bush knew how specific interrogations were being conducted, Cheney was more vague, saying: ‘We did discuss the techniques. There was no effort on our part to keep him from that.’

Bush has yet to speak out publicly on the Senate report, into what the CIA has called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ amid calls for those involved to face trial. The CIA deliberately misled Congress and the White House about the value of the intelligence its interrogators were gathering, the report released by the Senate intelligence committee concluded.

But Cheney did not mince his words in rejecting that. ‘The report’s full of crap, excuse me. I said hooey yesterday - let me use the real word,’ he thundered. The investigation was ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘didn’t bother to interview key people involved in the program,’ he said. According to the 500-page declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings, the first CIA briefing with Bush on the interrogation techniques was on April 8, 2006. Some prisoners - including Abu Zubaydah, allegedly a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who allegedly led Al-Qaeda operations in the Gulf - were tortured in 2002.

That US interrogators tortured Al-Qaeda suspects in secret jails in allied countries was known. But the detailed report was seized upon by America’s shocked friends and gloating enemies alike. China and Iran, whose own human rights records have often been criticized by Washington, denounced the abuses - but so did some close US friends like Germany. ‘Such a gross violation of our liberal, democratic values must not happen again,’ German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, reflecting the embarrassment of Washington’s European allies.

America’s great power rivals China and Russia - often on the end of US censure for its rights record - was equally scathing. ‘We believe the US side should reflect upon itself, correct its ways and earnestly respect and abide by the rules of international conventions,’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. ‘The published data is the latest proof of crude systemic violations of human rights by US authorities,’ the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov said in a statement.

‘Such a state of affairs does not mesh with the United States’ claims to the title of a ‘paragon of democracy’,’ Dolgov said. ‘This is far from the reality.’ In response to the report, Obama acknowledged that torture had been counterproductive and contrary to American values. ‘No nation is perfect,’ he said. ‘But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.’