Disclosures of torture and long-term arbitrary detentions have won rebuke from leading voices including the U.N. secretary-general and the U.S. Supreme Court. But the bitterest words come from inside the system, the size of several major U.S. penitentiaries.
"It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi told The Associated Press after his release — without charge — last month. "I lived with the Americans for one year and eight months as if I was living in hell."
Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents, tens of thousands now have passed through U.S. detention, the vast majority in Iraq. Many say they were often interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken.
Defenders of the system say it is an unfortunate necessity in the battles to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, and to keep suspected terrorists out of action.
Every U.S. detainee in Iraq "is detained because he poses a security threat to the government of Iraq, the people of Iraq or coalition forces," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for U.S.-led military detainee operations in Iraq.
But dozens of ex-detainees, government ministers and lawmakers, human rights activists, lawyers and scholars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States interviewed by The Associated Press said the detention system often is unjust and hurts the fight against terrorism by inflaming anti-Americanism in Iraq and elsewhere.
Reports of extreme physical and mental abuse, symbolized by the notorious Abu Ghraib prison photos of 2004, have abated as the Pentagon has rejected torture-like treatment of the inmates. Most recently, on Sept. 6, the Pentagon issued a new interrogation manual banning forced nakedness, hooding, stress positions and other abusive techniques.
The same day, President George W. Bush said the CIA's secret outposts in the prison network had been emptied.
Whatever the progress, small or significant, grim realities persist.
Human rights groups count dozens of detainee deaths for which no one has been punished or that were never explained. The secret prisons — unknown in number and location — remain available for future detainees. The new manual banning torture does not cover CIA interrogators. And thousands of people still languish in a limbo, deprived of one of common law's oldest rights, habeas corpus, the right to know why you are imprisoned.
"If you, God forbid, are an innocent Afghan who gets sold down the river by some warlord rival, you can end up at (Bagram prison, Afghanistan) and you have absolutely no way of clearing your name," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch in New York.
The U.S. government has contended it can hold detainees until the "war on terror" ends — as it determines. "When we get up to 'forever,' I think it will be tested" in court, said retired admiral John D. Hutson, former top lawyer for the U.S. Navy.
In Iraq, the Army oversees about 13,000 prisoners at Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport, Camp Bucca in the southern desert, and Fort Suse in the Kurdish north.
Neither prisoners of war nor criminal defendants, they are just "security detainees" held "for imperative reasons of security," said command spokesman Curry, using language from an annex to a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S. presence here.
Others say there is no need to hold these thousands outside of the rules for prisoners of war established by the Geneva Conventions.