WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush acknowledged yesterday 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.
Bush said the CIA program “has helped us to take potential mass murderers off the streets before they were able to kill.” 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.
“These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans for new attacks,” Bush said, defending the CIA program he authorized after the Sept. 11 attacks. “The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.”
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 Rumsfeld be made to step down.
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.”
Some Democrats and human rights groups have said the CIA’s secret prison system did not allow monitoring for abuses and they hoped that it would be shut down.
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 gathered to hear his speech.
“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.
“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,” Bush said.
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.
Bush also laid out his proposal for how trials for detainees should be conducted, a plan he says ensures fairness.
His proposed legislation was hailed by some Senate leaders, but other lawmakers said it would curtails certain rights of terror suspects.
“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 who would gladly use any information to harm us, and any opportunity to strike us again.”
However, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress was being pushed to make a hasty decision on the plan for special military trials. Skelton questioned whether Bush’s approach would meet the requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.
The proposal is likely to prompt a showdown on the Senate floor among Republicans. GOP moderates John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have drafted a rival proposal.