Washington — President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the CIA runs secret prisons overseas and said tough interrogation forced terrorist leaders to reveal plots to attack the United States and its allies.
Bush said 14 suspects - including the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and architects of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania - had been turned over to the Defense Department and moved to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial.
"This program has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists," Bush said.
"Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al-Qaida and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland."
Releasing information declassified just hours earlier, Bush said the capture of one terrorist just months after the Sept. 11 attacks had led to the capture of another and then another, and had revealed planning for attacks using airplanes, car bombs and anthrax.
Nearing the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, Bush pressed Congress to quickly pass administration-drafted legislation authorizing the use of military commissions for trials of terror suspects. Legislation is needed because the Supreme Court in June said the administration's plan for trying detainees in military tribunals violated U.S. and international law.
The president's speech, his third in a recent series about the war on terror, gave him an opportunity to shore up his administration's credentials on national security two months before congressional elections at a time when Americans are growing weary of the war in Iraq.
Democrats, hoping to make the elections a referendum on Bush's policies in Iraq and the war on terror, urged anew that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld be made to step down. They argued that the White House has mishandled the war, mismanaged the detainee system and failed to prosecute terrorists.
"For five years, Democrats have stood ready to work with the president and the Republican Congress to establish sound procedures to bring terrorists to justice," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Unfortunately, President Bush ignored the advice of our uniformed military and set up a flawed system that failed to prosecute a single terrorist and was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court."
With the transfer of the 14 men to Guantanamo, there currently are no detainees being held by the CIA, Bush said. A senior administration official said the CIA had detained fewer than 100 suspected terrorists in the history of the program.
Still, Bush said that "having a CIA program for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting lifesaving information."
Earlier this year, an anti-torture panel at the United Nations recommended the closure of Guantanamo and criticized alleged U.S. use of secret prisons and suspected delivery of prisoners to foreign countries for questioning. Some Democrats and human rights groups argued that the CIA's secret prison system did not allow monitoring for abuses and they hoped that it would be shut down.
"He finally acknowledged the elephant in the room that everybody had always been talking about," said Jumana Musa, advocacy director for Amnesty International USA.
"I think what surprised me is he seemed to be asking Congress to legalize it through statutes, essentially allowing him to continue to detain people in secret by sort of putting forth all this information that they got from these folks and somehow using that to justify what has been recognized by U.N. committees as an unlawful act and contrary to our treaty obligations."
The president declined to disclose the location or details of the detainees' confinement or the interrogation techniques.
"I cannot describe the specific methods used - I think you understand why," Bush said in the East Room, where families of some of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks heartily applauded him when he promised to finally bring the perpetrators to justice.
"If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary."
Bush insisted that the detainees were not tortured.
"I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture," Bush said. "It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it."
Bush said the information from terrorists in CIA custody has played a role in the capture or questioning of nearly every senior al-Qaida member or associate detained by the U.S. and its allies since the program began.
He said they include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused Sept. 11 mastermind, as well as Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged would-be 9/11 hijacker, and Abu Zubaydah, who was believed to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many al-Qaida cells.
He said interrogators have succeeded in getting information that has helped make photo identifications, pinpoint terrorist hiding places, provide ways to make sense of documents, identify voice recordings and understand the meaning of terrorist communications, al-Qaida's travel routes and hiding places,
The administration had refused until now to acknowledge the existence of CIA prisons. Bush said he was going public because the United States has largely completed questioning the suspects, and also because the CIA program had been jeopardized by the Supreme Court ruling.
The Supreme Court ruled that prisoner protections spelled out by the Geneva Conventions should extend to members of al-Qaida. In addition to torture and cruel treatment, the treaties ban "outrages against personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment."
Administration officials said they were concerned the ruling left U.S. personnel vulnerable to be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act because the language under the Geneva Conventions was so vague.
The Supreme Court ruling put a damper on the CIA's program, virtually putting the interrogation of detainees on hold until such prohibitions like "outrages against personal dignity" could be defined by law.
"We're not interrogating now because CIA officials feel like the rules are so vague that they cannot interrogate without being tried as war criminals, and that's irresponsible," Bush said in an interview with "CBS Evening News."
The administration-drafted legislation would authorize the defense secretary to convene a military commission with five members, plus a judge to preside. It would guarantee a detainee's access to military counsel but eliminate other rights common in military and civilian courts. The bill would allow reliable hearsay and potentially coerced testimony to be used as evidence in court, as well as the submission of classified evidence "outside the presence of the accused."
Senate Republican leaders hailed Bush's proposal.
"It's important to remember these defendants are not common criminals," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Rather, many are terrorists, sworn enemies of the United States."
But Democrats and GOP moderates warned that the plan would set a dangerous precedent, ensuring the legislation would not likely sail through Congress unchanged.
Republican Sens. John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have drafted a rival proposal. Unlike the administration's plan, the senators' proposal would allow a defendant to access to all evidence used against them. The plan by Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also would prohibit coerced testimony.
Graham, R-S.C., said withholding evidence from a war criminal sets a dangerous precedent other nations could follow. "Would I be comfortable with (an American service member) going to jail with evidence they never saw? No," Graham said.
Also on Wednesday, the Pentagon put out a new Army field manual that spells out appropriate conduct on issues including prisoner interrogation. The manual applies to all the armed services but not the CIA. It bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, for the first time specifically mentioning forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous during the war on terror.