Washington: Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on US President Barack Obama to order a criminal investigation into alleged detainee abuse by predecessor George W Bush and senior figures in his administration.
"There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, (former vice president Dick) Cheney, (former secretary of defence Donald) Rumsfeld, and (former CIA director George) Tenet for authorising torture and war crimes," said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth.
In a 107-page report entitled, `Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees`, the rights watchdog said inaction was denting America`s standing in the world.
"The US is right to call for justice when serious international crimes are committed in places like Darfur, Libya, and Sri Lanka, but there should be no double standards," said Roth.
"When the US government shields its own officials from investigation and prosecution, it makes it easier for others to dismiss global efforts to bring violators of serious crimes to justice."
Human Rights Watch said the narrow scope of a probe by Attorney General Eric Holder, which only examined "unauthorised" acts, had failed to address systemic abuse under the Bush administration.
Holder in 2009 ordered a review of CIA interrogations of over 100 detainees at secret sites overseas but concluded last month that a full criminal probe was only necessary in the case of two deaths in custody.
"The road to the violations detailed here began within days of the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda on New York and Washington, DC, when the Bush administration began crafting a new set of policies, procedures, and practices for detainees captured in military and counterterrorism operations outside the United States," the Human Rights Watch report said.
Instead of looking at isolated cases, Obama should probe those responsible for setting up the harsh interrogation practices at Guantanamo and the secret rendition programs overseas as America went to war in Afghanistan, it said.
Bush has publicly admitted approving the use of waterboarding -- a form of mock execution involving near-drowning -- and "never exerted his authority to stop the ill-treatment or punish those responsible," the report said.
He also authorised illegal CIA detention and rendition programs under which detainees were held incommunicado and transferred to countries like Egypt, Syria, and Jordan for likely torture, according to Human Rights Watch.
The report described Cheney as "the driving force behind the establishment of illegal detention and interrogation policies" which were then approved by Rumsfeld.
Both top officials followed the waterboarding and other illegal interrogation methods used on key terrorism suspects closely, while CIA director Tenet oversaw and ran the entire program, it said.
Attempts by top Bush administration officials to justify their actions by saying they were given the all-clear by Justice Department lawyers ignores evidence they sought to influence those decisions, it said.
"Senior Bush officials shouldn`t be able to shape and hand-pick legal advice and then hide behind it as if it were autonomously delivered," Roth said.
Any criminal investigation should examine the preparation of the Justice Department memos used to justify the detention programs and also look at the roles played by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as administration lawyers, the report said.
Human Rights Watch also urged Congress to set up an independent, nonpartisan commission to examine the actions of the Bush administration and ensure such systematic abuses are not repeated.
Publicising his memoir in 2010, Bush defended his decision to allow "waterboarding" of terrorist suspects by claiming it prevented deadly attacks in Britain.
He said information obtained using the interrogation technique had helped prevent planned attacks on London`s Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf.
Cheney and Rumsfeld have been more outspoken about the harsh interrogation methods, claiming that waterboarding played a role in tracking down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and even calling for the technique to be reinstated.
Obama administration officials have hit back at such claims, insisting the intelligence that led to bin Laden came from a broad variety of sources.