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.
Meanwhile, officials of Nouri al-Maliki's 4-month-old Iraqi government say the U.S. detention system violates Iraq's national rights.
At the Justice Ministry, Deputy Minister Busho Ibrahim told the AP it has been "a daily request" that the detainees be brought under Iraqi authority.
The cases of U.S.-detained Iraqis are reviewed by a committee of U.S. military and Iraqi government officials. The panel recommends criminal charges against some, release for others. Almost 18,700 have been released since June 2004, the U.S. command says, not including many more who were held and then freed by local military units and never shipped to major prisons.
Some who were released, no longer considered a threat, later joined or rejoined the insurgency.
The review process is too slow, say U.N. officials. Until they are released, often families do not know where their men are — the prisoners are almost always men — or even whether they are in American hands.
Released prisoner Waleed Abdul Karim, 26, recounted how his guards would wield their absolute authority.
"Tell us about the ones who attack Americans in your neighborhood," he quoted an interrogator as saying, "or I will keep you in prison for another 50 years."
As with others, Karim's confinement may simply have strengthened support for the anti-U.S. resistance. "I will hate Americans for the rest of my life," he said.
As bleak and hidden as the Iraq lockups are, the Afghan situation is even less known. Accounts of abuse and deaths emerged in 2002-2004, but Abu Ghraib-like photos from Bagram exist, none have leaked out. The U.S. military is believed holding about 500 detainees — most Afghans, but also apparently Arabs, Pakistanis and Central Asians.
Guantanamo received its first prisoners from Afghanistan — chained, wearing blacked-out goggles — in January 2002. A total of 770 detainees were sent there. Its population today of Afghans, Arabs and others, stands at 455.
Described as the most dangerous of America's "war on terror" prisoners, only 10 of the Guantanamo inmates have been charged with crimes. Charges are expected against 14 other al Qaeda suspects flown in to Guantanamo from secret prisons on Sept. 4.
Plans for their trials are on hold, however, because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June against the Bush administration's plan for military tribunals.
The court held the tribunals were not authorized by the U.S. Congress and violated the Geneva Conventions by abrogating prisoners' rights. In a sometimes contentious debate, the White House and Congress are trying to agree on a new, acceptable trial plan.
Since the court decision, and after four years of confusing claims that terrorist suspects were so-called "unlawful combatants" unprotected by international law, the Bush administration has taken steps recognizing that the Geneva Conventions' legal and human rights do extend to imprisoned al Qaeda members. At the same time, however, the new White House proposal on tribunals retains such controversial features as denying defendants access to some evidence against them.
The Navy is planning long-term at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This fall it expects to open a new, $30-million maximum-security wing at its prison complex there, a concrete-and-steel structure replacing more temporary camps.
In Iraq, Army jailers are a step ahead. Last month they opened a $60-million, state-of-the-art detention center at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport. The Army oversees about 13,000 prisoners in Iraq at Cropper, Camp Bucca in the southern desert, and Fort Suse in the Kurdish north.
The clandestine jails are now empty, Bush announced, but will remain a future option for CIA detentions.
Louise Arbour, U.N. human rights chief, is urging Bush to abolish the CIA prisons altogether, as ripe for "abusive conduct." The CIA's techniques for extracting information from prisoners still are secret, she noted.