WASHINGTON—In a dramatic announcement, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday that he'd authorized a secret CIA detention program and announced plans to bring to trial 14 top terrorist suspects, including some of the alleged architects of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush used the announcement, delivered five days before the fifth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, to challenge Congress to authorize him to wage the war on terrorism on his terms. At stake is defining how the rule of law governs the executive branch as it deals with captives who it suspects are terrorists.
Speaking to a White House audience that included relatives of Sept. 11 victims, Bush demanded that lawmakers revive his plan for military tribunals without key legal safeguards for those on trial, legalize the CIA's detention program and shield U.S. officials from prosecution for possible war crimes.
Leading lawmakers in both parties said they would insist that the detainee trials offer legal rights that Bush opposes, but the president's announcement appeared to be intended to give him more leverage in his negotiations with Congress over how to try suspected terrorists.
After refusing for months to confirm media reports of secret CIA prisons, which some Republicans likened to treason, Bush pulled the lid off a CIA program intended to extract information from "high-value" terrorist suspects. His narrative of the CIA's interrogation efforts gave him a chance to highlight some of the administration's successes in the war on terrorism two months before November's congressional elections, in which Republicans are emphasizing their tough approach to national security.
The CIA's captives included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ramzi Binalshibh, another suspected Sept. 11 plotter, as well as others linked to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Relatives of the attacks' victims applauded and cheered when Bush declared his intention to bring the two captives and 12 other top terrorist suspects to trial "as soon as Congress acts" on his plan for military tribunals.
Bush said information gleaned from the CIA interrogations helped thwart attacks on the United States. It also provided invaluable information on terror cells, al-Qaida's efforts to develop biological weapons and the location of key al-Qaida operatives, he said. He and other administration officials wouldn't provide details on the CIA prisons.
Two U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because those details remain classified, said the CIA's program of interrogating some prisoners and sending others to third countries for questioning produced a mixture of some good information and some false information from prisoners eager to end harsh treatment.
In addition to the potential political benefits, Bush had other reasons to make the program public. A Supreme Court ruling in June struck down the administration's plan to bring terrorist suspects before military tribunals and called into question the legality of secret CIA detentions.
The court said Bush needed congressional approval to establish the military tribunals and ruled that terrorist suspects are entitled to basic protections under the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of wartime captives.
Lawyers for detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and civil liberties groups called Bush's announcement a cynical effort to stiff-arm Congress and score political points.
"The president's acknowledgements today do not gloss over the gross illegalities at Guantanamo or in secret CIA prisons," the Center for Constitutional Rights, a group that works with detainees, said in a statement. "The administration must be forced to justify why hundreds of men have been detained in Guantanamo for five years without any hearing."
Bush insisted that the CIA hasn't engaged in torture, but he said that the Geneva Conventions' prohibition against "humiliating and degrading treatment" could potentially cause legal problems for CIA interrogators.
"I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it—and I will not authorize it," the president said.
However, he added: "Some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act—simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way. This is unacceptable."
Bush and other administration officials declined to discuss the CIA's interrogation tactics, which the two intelligence officials said has included "water-boarding," a technique that makes its victim fear he's drowning.
In another development Wednesday, the Pentagon issued a new manual on the treatment of prisoners that explicitly prohibits water-boarding, sexual humiliation, electric shocks, the threatening use of dogs and other degrading or painful tactics.
Bush suggested that the CIA should have more latitude, while avoiding the use of torture.
He also strongly defended the use of "tough" interrogation methods in describing the case of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida operative who was nursed back to health by the CIA after he was wounded in a firefight. He said Zubaydah, who's believed to be a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden, resisted questioning until the CIA "used an alternative set of procedures," which Bush declined to specify.
Once he started talking, Bush said, Zubaydah helped the CIA capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, and his alleged co-plotter Ramzi Binalshibh.
Two senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the secret CIA program under the condition of anonymity, said the program was put on hold within the past few weeks when the last 14 suspects in CIA custody were transferred to the Defense Department's detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The officials said that "fewer than 100" suspects had ever been in CIA custody. They declined to provide a detailed accounting of their fates, but said that many had been returned to their home countries for prosecution.
The president challenged Congress to act swiftly on legislation that would clear the way for his version of military trials and lift the legal cloud over the CIA's interrogation program, permitting it to resume.
"This is intelligence that cannot be found any other place," Bush said. "And our security depends on getting this kind of information."
Some lawmakers chafed at what they viewed as an effort to force them into line behind Bush's approach.
"Congress is being told, either take this program or you're coddling terrorists," Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., told CNN. Harman is the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he'd immediately introduce legislation sponsoring the administration's plan for military tribunals. He also left open the possibility of bypassing the Senate Armed Services Committee to expedite bringing the debate to the Senate floor, possibly as soon as next week.
Three leading Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee who have offered an alternative to Bush's military tribunal plan said they're willing to seek a compromise with the president, but don't plan to fold. They are Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the committee.
Their alternative would prohibit the use of testimony obtained through coercive interrogation, restrict the use of hearsay evidence and give judges the right to decide whether defendants should be allowed to see classified information that could be used against them. Bush opposes those terms.
Leading Democratic senators argue that terms such as those sought by McCain, Graham and Warner are necessary to ensure due process of law at the tribunals so that higher courts won't overrule them as unconstitutional.
"We will work with the president, and if we can't work with him, with Senators McCain and Warner and Graham, to come up with an approach that allows us to get the information we need and not have it thrown out by future courts," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
If Senate Democrats could lure six Republicans to stand with them, they could block Bush's terms. But McCain and Graham said they were willing to compromise and thought that Bush was willing to strike a deal.
"The administration, it seems to me ... has decided to work with Congress," Graham said.
"The House (of Representatives), generally speaking, supports the administration," McCain said. "We understand that we need to get this resolved in September. I just hope that we can work out our differences."
McCain said that the trials could start in October if Congress agrees on the ground rules this month.
"They are ready to go," he said. "That's why it's important that we pass this legislation."
Here is a list of the 14 people formerly in CIA custody now at the U.S. prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Five of the 14 are believed to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
_Ali Abd al Aziz Ali—An ethnic Baluchi, born and raised in Kuwait. 29 years old. Allegedly helped arrange money and travel for Sept. 11 hijackers. His uncle is suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cousin is Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
_Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani—Tanzanian, believed to be about 32 years old. One of al Qaida's top forgers, he was indicted on charges relating to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. Allegedly served as a cook for Osama bin Laden before becoming al Qaida's top document forger.
_Riduan bin Isomuddin, aka Hambali—Indonesian, of Sudanese extraction, 42 years old. Believed to have planned bombing in Bali that killed 200 in 2002.
_Mustafa Ahmad al Hawsawi—Saudi. Allegedly provided funding for the 9/11 hijackers and shared a bank account with one of them.
_Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep, aka Lillie—Malaysian. Key Hambali lieutenant. Believed to have provided funds for the 2003 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia.
_Majid Khan—Pakistani. Moved to the United States with his family in 1996 and graduated from high school in 1999 in Baltimore. Allegedly researched various terrorism plots, including a plan to blow up gas stations and poison reservoirs, on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
_Abd al Rahim al Nashiri—Saudi, 41 years old. Mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. Nashiri was sentenced to death in absentia by a Yemeni court.
_Abu Faraj al-Libi—Libyan. Allegedly became al Qaida's top operations officer after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured. Believed to have ferried messages from Osama bin Laden to al Qaida members.
_Abu Zubaydah—Palestinian, raised in Saudi Arabia. Alleged al Qaida facilitator who helped make travel arrangements, including smuggling now-deceased Al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi out of Afghanistan to Iran in November 2001. No direct connection to Sept. 11.
_Ramzi Binalshibh—Yemeni. About 34. Scheduled to be one of the 9/11 hijackers, he's believed to have served as a communications go-between after he failed to receive a U.S. visa. Allegedly was recruiting hijackers for an attack on Heathrow Airport in London when captured.
_Mohd Farik bin Amin, aka Zubair—Malaysian. Hanbali associate. Allegedly tapped for a suicide mission against Los Angeles.
_Waleed bin Attash, aka Khallad—Yemeni, raised in Saudi Arabia, 27 years old. Allegedly worked with Nashiri on USS Cole plot and was selected by bin Laden as one of the 9/11 hijackers, but an arrest in Yemen prevented his participation. Believed to have trained participants in 9/11 attacks and the USS Cole bombing.
_Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—Baluchi, born and raised in Kuwait. Suspected mastermind of 9/11 attacks. 1986 graduate of North Carolina A&T State University.
_Gouled Hassan Dourad—Somali, 32 years old. Allegedly cased the U.S. military base in Djibouti for a planned terrorist attack.
Source: U.S. Department of Defense.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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