UNTIL THIS MONTH very little was publicly known about the Bush administration's procedures for handling and interrogating foreign detainees. Human rights groups had collected reports of abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan, reports that the administration dismissed or denied. Spokesmen pointed to President Bush's statement in June of last year that the United States would not violate an international convention against torture and to assurances that detainees in Guantanamo were being treated according to the principles of the Geneva Conventions. In the past two weeks, thanks to the furor over the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison and a series of congressional hearings, a disturbingly different picture has been revealed -- one that in its own way is shocking and damaging to America's place in the world.

What is now known is that official procedures for handling detainees permitted hooding, sleep and dietary deprivation, forced "stress" positions, isolation for more than 30 days and intimidation by dogs, and that these reflected judgments at the highest levels of the Bush administration. These decisions, taken in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, changed decades of previous U.S. policy and violated or radically reinterpreted existing regulations. Their adoption deeply disturbed legal professionals inside the military, so much so that some secretly took their complaints to outside watchdog organizations. The International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as many independent legal experts, has condemned the resulting questioning techniques as illegal under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Yet Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been saying that the United States considers such treatment of prisoners appropriate and legal -- and, presumably, sanctioned for use against detainees everywhere, including Americans.

On Thursday the U.S. commanding general in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, took a first corrective step by prohibiting the harsh interrogation methods in Iraq. But the Pentagon continues to defend the techniques as legal under international law, and they are still available for use in military and CIA facilities in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. That is a recipe for more unacceptable abuses and more damage to the United States.

How have the procedures been changed since Sept. 11? Official U.S. military regulations on interrogation expressly forbid the "physical and moral coercion" outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. A number of practices are identified in official manuals as illegal physical or mental torture, including "food deprivation," "abnormal sleep deprivation" and "forcing an individual to stand, sit or kneel in abnormal positions for prolonged periods of time." With the encouragement of senior civilian Pentagon officials, these rules have been turned inside out. Sleep deprivation of up to 72 hours, the Pentagon decided, was not "abnormal" and therefore not torture; a forced stress position held for as long as 45 minutes was not "prolonged" and thus also allowed. The list of practices approved for Iraq also included "dietary manipulation" (as distinguished from illegal "food deprivation"), "sensory deprivation" and "change of scenery down" (putting a prisoner in a worse place).

Even harsher methods have been approved for Guantanamo and for facilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere where the Bush administration is holding detainees it says are "unlawful combatants" under the terms of the Geneva Conventions. These methods have not been officially disclosed, but according to reports in The Post and the New York Times, they include questioning detainees while they are naked, withholding their pain medication and submerging them under water so as to simulate drowning. In these cases, the Bush administration's official position is that it is not violating the Convention Against Torture, which it acknowledges covers all detainees, including unlawful combatants. But the administration also interprets that convention as prohibiting any act that would be unlawful under the U.S. Constitution. We hope Mr. Bush does not really believe that submersion in water should be a permissible way to question American citizens arrested domestically -- yet that is the logic of his administration's position.

To effectively deprive prisoners of sleep and otherwise change their scenery "down," the Bush administration decided to violate another longstanding military regulation that separated military police who guard prisoners from intelligence interrogators. According to an Army investigative report, military police were required to "set the conditions" for interrogations -- a procedure that, at least at Abu Ghraib, put them in the position of taking direction from interrogators, including civilians outside the military chain of command.

At first, this procedure, like the harsh interrogation techniques, was used only at Guantanamo. But last September both were introduced to Iraq by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then the Guantanamo commander and now the commander of Abu Ghraib. The abuses depicted in the photographs took place between October and December.

Army and administration officials say that Mr. Sanchez never authorized specific use of most of the "harsh" techniques in Iraq while they were available. Yet a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows that hooding, stress techniques and other harsh methods have been employed systematically by intelligence teams -- not just at Abu Ghraib but around Iraq. Investigations must determine why this happened and why abuses similar to those of Abu Ghraib have also been reported in Afghanistan. But already there is one lesson: Once a government opens the door to abusive treatment of prisoners, it creates a climate in which those abuses are likely to be practiced far more widely and with less exactitude than it intends.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita charged in a letter we published yesterday that our concern over whether administration procedures violate international law "puts The Post in the same company as those involved in this despicable behavior." We would respond that unambiguous dedication to the rule of law has distinguished American governments, until now, from those that systematically violate human rights. Perhaps the administration has gained valuable information through its harsh treatment of prisoners, though it has offered no evidence for this. But no gains could possibly justify the abuses that have been exposed or the damage done when an American secretary of defense declares to the world that holding detainees hooded and contorted is in keeping with international law and American values. The only solution is for Mr. Bush to formally forswear the abusive practices his administration has adopted. If he will not, Congress must prohibit their use.