Bush says CIA has prisons overseas

He says program foiled attacks, urges Congress to create military panels

September 07, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged for the first time yesterday that the CIA has run secret prisons overseas for high-level terrorism suspects and said 14 key al-Qaida detainees who were interrogated there, including the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, have been sent to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial.

Bush said the program had helped foil further attacks and called on Congress to move quickly to create military commissions to try such suspects. The military panels would deny detainees some basic trial rights and immunize Americans from war crimes prosecutions for prisoner mistreatment.

Speaking to conservative activists at the White House with family members of Sept. 11 victims looking on, Bush urged Congress to enact his proposal for military commissions so those responsible for the attacks "can face justice." It was his latest salvo in an election-year push to highlight terrorism before the fifth anniversary of the strikes against New York and Washington.

In disclosing the CIA program, Bush was bowing to domestic and international criticism of his administration's expansive view of executive power as a justification for tough counterterrorism policies and a Supreme Court rebuke of his tribunals as illegal.

"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," Bush said.

But he was also asking Congress to endorse his administration's aggressive approach to dealing with suspected terrorists and to enshrine in law interrogation and trial procedures that lack some basic protections for defendants.

Bush detailed plots he said had collapsed as a result of the CIA program. The disclosures appeared designed to put pressure on Congress to accept his proposal by forcing lawmakers to act so that some of the world's most notorious terrorists could be put on trial.

Among those questioned through the CIA program, he said, were alleged Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; the purported "20th hijacker," Ramzi Binalshibh; and Abu Zubaydah, an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Families of the Sept. 11 victims "have waited patiently for justice," Bush said. "They should have to wait no longer."

His approach met with skepticism from senior Republicans, including Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona - a former prisoner of war - and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who want to give detainees certain rights they would be denied under Bush's proposal.

Those include the right to be present throughout the trial, to see all the evidence against them and to exclude statements obtained through coercion. Bush's plan would allow the accused to be barred from certain parts of their trials, prevented from seeing classified evidence and, in some cases, convicted on the basis of coerced statements.

Graham said he thought the differences could be overcome, but added that the use of classified information continued to be an "area of contention."

"I believe it would be a mistake to allow the jury to see classified evidence the accused never sees," Graham said. He said he shares the concern of military judge advocates general that the practice "could establish a precedent that could be used against our own troops."

Reconciling Bush's approach with the Republican senators' plan, which is based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice used to conduct courts-martial, could be a bruising process, analysts said.

"I just don't see how they can find common ground with these very different starting points," said Carl W. Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. "It's going to be extraordinarily difficult."

Democrats, determined to avoid being cast as soft on terrorism, said Bush's move to try the suspected terrorists was long overdue, but they used his speech as an occasion to criticize his national security record. Bush, they said, should work with a bipartisan group to craft the military commissions.

"The last thing we need is a repeat of the arrogant, go-it-alone behavior that has jeopardized and delayed efforts to bring these terrorists to justice for five years," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Civil rights groups and lawyers for Guantanamo detainees denounced Bush's proposal as the codification of torture, and some predicted that the Supreme Court would strike it down.

Tom Malinowski, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, called Bush's speech "a chilling defense of torture."

The fate of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which has been the object of international condemnation, and the 455 detainees held there have been in limbo since the Supreme Court, in a June ruling, struck down the military tribunals Bush wanted to use to prosecute the prisoners. Bush has said he wanted to close the facility but could not do so until he devised a system for trying suspected terrorists.

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