At least one government agency, the FBI, felt the administration’s harsh treatment of detainees, which top Bush officials repeatedly tried to justify, was wrong.

A report by the Justice department’s inspector general, long delayed because of infighting between the department and the Pentagon over how much should be made public, praised FBI agents for refusing to join harsh and abusive interrogation techniques by the military and CIA in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. The agents described some of the techniques as “borderline torture.”

But legal hairsplitting over what is torture and what is simply abusive has led the U.S. government down a sad path away from how we see ourselves as a people.

In 2002, FBI director Robert Mueller ordered his agents not to participate in joint interrogations where techniques prohibited by the FBI were used.

Some of the agents complained to their higher ups, and some even created a “war crimes” folder, but their complaints failed to move the top reaches of the Justice department.

The bureau and the agents were in a difficult position. The inspector general’s report shows that many clearly believed this was wrong, even illegal, but the political appointees in the department’s own Office of Legal Counsel, having already jettisoned the Geneva Conventions, were generating legal opinions justifying practices that most people would consider torture. It’s doubtful that the White House, which believed there were no limits on the president’s powers to fight the war on terror, would have listened.

Even though in March President Bush vetoed a bill containing a ban on waterboarding, a White House spokesman also said “the abuse of prisoners is not and never has been U.S. policy.”

Shackling in stress positions, being threatened with dogs, extreme sleep deprivation, deafening music, bright lights, isolation and being forced to wear a bra and behave like a dog might strike some people as abusive.

There might be some lame justification of this stuff if it worked but very little evidence has surfaced that it did.

The FBI’s former head of counterterrorism, Pasquale D’Amuro, told The Wall Street Journal, “I honestly don’t believe these techniques were effective. And, frankly, I thought it was an embarrassment for our country to be engaged in this type of activity.”

A lingering embarrassment, we would add.