The US' human rights abuses have provided a rallying cry for terrorists and set a bad example to regimes seeking to justify their own poor humanitarian records, a leading independent watchdog said on Thursday.
The torture and degrading treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay has undermined the credibility of the US as a defender of human rights and opponent of terrorism, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says in its annual report.
"The US government is less and less able to push for justice abroad because it is unwilling to see justice done at home," says Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director.
The report comes as the Bush administration prepares for inauguration next week. The administration has shown little interest in moderating its aggressive approach to its "global war on terror."
Thursday's scathing report argues that the US has weakened its own moral authority at a time that authority is most needed, "in the midst of a seeming epidemic of suicide bombings, beheadings and other attacks on civilians and noncombatants."
"When the United States disregards human rights, it undermines that human rights culture and thus sabotages one of the most important tools for dissuading potential terrorists. Instead, US abuses have provided a new rallying cry for terrorist recruiters, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib have become the recruiting posters for Terrorism, Inc," it said.
The report says that America's disregard of human rights has encouraged other countries to follow suit:
Egypt has defended a decision to renew "emergency" laws by referring to US anti-terror legislation.
Malaysia justifies detention without trial by invoking Guantanamo.
Russia cites Abu Ghraib to blame abuse in Chechnya solely on low-ranking soldiers.
But there are few signs in Washington of a change of approach.
The White House secretly persuaded Congress to overturn legislation passed last month by a 96-2 Senate vote that would have imposed restrictions on extreme interrogation methods, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice opposed the measure because "it provides legal protections to foreign prisoners to which they are not now entitled."
The US military is proceeding with trials of supposed Abu Ghraib torturers, arguing that abuse was the work of a small band of rogue soldiers.
A series of official inquiries have largely spared the top ranks of the military and the administration itself, which first approved the loosening of guidelines on interrogation in 2002.
Alberto Gonzales, the White House lawyer who approved the guidelines, and who told the president the Geneva conventions were "obsolete" in the face of the terrorist threat, has been nominated attorney-general.
The erosion of human rights standards has also reached the EU, Human Rights Watch warns.