Bush admits secret CIA terror detentions
By Steve Holland and Will Dunham | September 6, 2006
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush acknowledged on Wednesday the CIA had interrogated dozens of terrorism suspects at secret overseas locations and said 14 of those held had been sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Bush made the surprise admission as he prodded the U.S. Congress to approve rules for military commissions to try such detainees and with national security a key issue for Republicans who face the possibility of losses in the November congressional elections.
"The need for this legislation is urgent," Bush said. "We need to ensure that those questioning terrorists can continue to do everything within the limit of the law to get information that can save American lives."
Bush was forced to come up with a new method to try foreign terrorist suspects after the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected the military tribunal system his administration set up to try Guantanamo prisoners, most captured in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon said the 14 detainees arrived at Guantanamo, where they could face prosecution, on Monday from undisclosed locations. Among them were the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two other al Qaeda leaders, Ramzi Binalshibh and Abu Zubaydah.
Bush strongly defended the secret detention and questioning of terrorism suspects and said the CIA treated them humanely and did not torture. His announcement was greeted with some skepticism by human rights activists. The detention program, disclosed last year by The Washington Post, provoked an international outcry.
Citing gains made under the secret program, Bush said information provided by Zubaydah, described as a close associate of Osama bin Laden, helped foil an attack being planned inside the United States.
Intelligence gained from Mohammed led to the capture of a suspected terrorist named Zubair and provided information on al Qaeda's efforts to obtain biological weapons, Bush said.
With the fifth anniversary of the hijacked airliner attacks looming, Bush called the legislation a top priority for Congress in coming weeks and sent up a bill that rivaled an effort by several key Republicans that affords detainees greater rights.
Bush said he wanted the legislation to clarify the rules that interrogators may use and make explicit that they are meeting the requirements of the Geneva Conventions.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the major sticking point was over allowing defendants access to classified evidence, which the White House plan would limit.
The Bush administration previously declined to admit the existence of the secret CIA prisons. The U.N. committee against torture in May called on the United States to close any such facilities, but senior administration officials said the program was essential and would remain open.
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, welcomed the transfer of the 14 suspects but said, "We are appalled that the Bush administration will further undermine its moral leadership" by continuing to use them.
U.S. officials said the CIA had held less than 100 suspects and after the transfer of the 14, the agency held none.
Bush would not say where the CIA secret prisons were located overseas but there have been reports of such facilities in Eastern Europe.
Bush's current focus on terrorism comes not only as the September 11 anniversary approaches but as his Republican Party faces stiff challenges in the midterm elections in two months. A vote on Bush's plan to establish such commissions could put Democrats on the defensive on the national security issue just weeks before the voting that could change control of Congress.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Democrats welcomed Bush's "long-overdue decision" to try September 11 suspects and called on Republicans to accept a bipartisan approach.
"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," Reid said.
The Pentagon also tried to soothe concerns about the Guantanamo facility.
It said it had prohibited eight abusive interrogation practices and allowed three new ones as part of long-awaited changes to the Army Field Manual governing the interrogation of prisoners held by the military.
Interrogators may not force a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts or pose in a sexual manner, and cannot place hoods or sacks over a detainee's head or use duct tape over his eyes. They cannot beat or electrically shock or burn a detainee or inflict other forms of physical pain.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Matt Spetalnick and Vicki Allen)
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