They talked about the war in Iraq and prescription drug benefits, debated gay marriage and discussed the particulars of our efforts to capture Osama Bin Laden. But one word you rarely heard President Bush or Senator John Kerry utter throughout the 2004 presidential campaign was Guantanamo.

Indeed, it was as if the US$155 million ($216 million) prison in Cuba built - David Rose reminds us in his new book - by Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Halliburton, didn't exist.

And that is exactly as the Government wanted things to be.

How did America's most secretive, highly guarded and internationally offensive prison become such a non-issue? The answer, Rose asserts, is that the Bush Administration has conducted a campaign to make it so.

From the very beginning, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and the President asserted that Guantanamo was where we held the worst of the worst, the really bad guys. As Cheney said, "They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of innocent Americans, if they can, and they are prepared to die in the effort."

In the wake of 9/11, Rose argues, the US Government used the terror threat as an excuse to free itself of the Geneva Accords.

On November 13, 2001, President Bush issued a Presidential Military Order declaring that captured al Qaeda terrorists could be tried by special military commissions, free of the restrictions imposed by the civilian courts. On this day, Guantanamo was born.

Very quickly, the definition of unlawful combatant stretched beyond al Qaeda to include not just someone thought to have engaged directly in terrorism against America, but anyone captured in Afghanistan suspected of fighting with the Taleban - a very different thing.

The result? The prison's population swelled to about 600 men, against whom no charges were filed for more than two years. They came from all over the world, in shackles and hoods, to sit and sweat in the Cuban sun and submit to questioning.

Rose is one of the first writers to publish a book on this unorthodox prison, and it's not hard to understand why.

Even though reporters are allowed there, they will have their lifelong visitation rights revoked by officials if they attempt to speak to a detainee or even if they reply to one who has spoken.

In spite of these limitations, Rose does a good job of making this faraway legal black hole come to life. He visited the prison in October 2003, after the initial cages known as X-Ray were replaced with the newly constructed Delta. What he describes is an institutional nightmare.

Most of the prisoners are kept in maximum security conditions. If they co-operate, they can be led in cuffs and leg irons to a covered yard for 20 minutes of exercises with one other detainee, followed by a five-minute shower.

Cells are prefabricated metal boxes a little larger than a king-size bed. Guards are required to pass each cell every 30 seconds.

There is no air conditioning and the lights stay on all night. But this is just the beginning of the hardship for most prisoners, says Rose. Failure to follow the rules of the camp brings punishment, which often means being attacked by something called the Extreme Reaction Force.

One inmate, who was eventually released, described the experience for refusing to have his cell searched for a third time in one day:

"They pepper sprayed me in the face, and I started vomiting; in all I must have brought up five cupfuls. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed.

"They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching. They dragged me out of my cell in chains, into the recreation yard, and shaved my beard, my hair, my eyebrows."

So who exactly are these people who are being held under such severe conditions? According to Rose, none of the highest-profile al Qaeda captures have wound up at Gitmo, as it is called. The CIA concluded in a report that many of the accused appeared to be low-level recruits who went to Afghanistan to support the Taleban or even innocent men swept up in the chaos of war.

One senior Pentagon official told Rose that at least two-thirds of the detainees held as of May 2004 could be released without hesitation immediately.

And earlier this year, that process finally began. In March, the Government released five British men from Guantanamo after holding them for nearly three years. They had been captured in Afghanistan, where they'd gone to offer humanitarian aid.

Rose interviewed them that same month, two months before the allegations of Abu Ghraib first surfaced, and yet they described a period of captivity eerily similar to that of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. They were punched, slapped, denied sleep, had seen prisoners sexually humiliated, hooded and forced to watch copies of the Koran being flushed down toilets.

Eventually the pressure proved too much; they gave false confessions that the British intelligence service, MI5, later showed to be untrue. Upon their return to the United Kingdom they were released by Scotland Yard without being charged.

The similarity of interrogation methods in Iraq and Cuba is not an accident, Rose says. Rather, they were the brainchild of the same man: General Geoffrey Miller, who arrived in Iraq in August 2003 to show American forces how to extract intelligence from prisoners, as he had done in Cuba.

The Bush Administration authorised fewer restrictions on interrogation, but officials still haven't had good intelligence.

The reason? So much of the information they get is a result of coercion. As Rose relates, Miller had met an inquisitor who boasted that he could wring a confession to devil-worship out of the pope himself.

Drawing on dozens of interviews with guards, released prisoners and highly placed intelligence officials at Guantanamo, Rose argues that the legal purgatory to which America consigned enemy combatants has, much like Iraq, actually increased the likelihood of terrorism.

Why? Because the spectacle of Americans trampling on the rights of humiliated Muslims has given al Qaeda yet another recruiting tool. In fact, it is so potent that many Western hostages in Iraq whose decapitations have been videotaped were made to wear orange jumpsuits, just like prisoners at Guantanamo.* John Freeman is a writer in New York.

Publisher: New Press