Bush Says Detainees Will Be Tried
He Confirms Existence of CIA Prisons
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Michael Fletcher | September 7, 2006
President Bush yesterday announced the transfer of the last 14 suspected terrorists held by the CIA at secret foreign prisons to the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said he wants to try them before U.S. military panels under proposed new rules he simultaneously sent to Congress.
Bush's statement during an impassioned East Room speech represented the first time he has confirmed the existence of the CIA program under which Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and others have been secretly held and subjected to irregular interrogation methods.
The president's dramatic speech committed Washington to putting senior al-Qaeda members -- including some believed to be the architects of the attacks -- on trial in proceedings that may be at least partly open. Only one person, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been convicted of conspiring in the attacks, and he had little to do with the actual plot.
Standing before an audience that included family members of attack victims, Bush delivered remarks timed to stake out a new policy position before the November elections -- and also to pressure lawmakers to approve quickly the administration's version of legislation on detainee matters that have been hotly debated for years.
Bush largely defended his administration's controversial detainee policies. But he spoke on the same day that the Defense Department, under pressure from Congress and the Supreme Court, separately ruled out the military's future use of interrogation methods that officials have said were practiced on the CIA's detainees -- including the use of temperature extremes and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
Together with the emptying of the secret CIA sites, the imposition of the new interrogation rules amounted to a policy shift for the White House. The administration has come under substantial foreign and judicial criticism for insisting on the right to hold detainees at will and to subject them to interrogations that international experts have repeatedly called abusive and illegal.
But Bush also said he wants the CIA in the future to have the authority to question terrorists under a program separate from the military's that would not be subject to the interrogation rules the administration put forward yesterday. Several human rights groups criticized this proposed exemption, even as they hailed the new rules.
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen N. Xenakis, an adviser to Physicians for Human Rights, said he is "proud to see the U.S. military adopt standards by which we would want our own soldiers to be treated, but it is profoundly disappointing that the President continues to insist on a parallel, clandestine interrogation system in absolute conflict with our laws and values."
Other aspects of the new administration policy provoked immediate controversy. The 86-page draft law on the new military courts, called "commissions," that Bush sent to Capitol Hill would allow defendants to be prosecuted with evidence they are not permitted to see, as well as evidence obtained through coercive interrogations that fall short of torture.
Human rights experts and uniformed military lawyers have criticized both provisions, arguing that they set a dangerous precedent for foreign trials of captured U.S. military personnel. Three influential Republican senators -- John W. Warner (Va.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) -- have drafted competing legislation that gives defendants access to the evidence against them and provides other rights that Bush opposes.
But Bush's push yesterday produced political gains among other Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who earlier said he was considering bringing the bill drafted by his colleagues to the floor next week, shifted ground yesterday and said he will instead soon bring the administration's version to the floor.
In his speech, Bush endorsed controversial legislation that would exempt U.S. officials and CIA officers from prosecution for some past detainee abuse. He called "unacceptable" provisions in a 10-year-old U.S. law on war crimes that subjects officials to possible prosecution for humiliating or degrading detainees.
In some cases, Bush said, "it has been necessary to move . . . individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly, questioned by experts and when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts." He did not say where the secret prisons were located, but said they were "outside the United States."
The Washington Post has withheld the names of several Eastern Europe countries involved in the effort since it first reported last November that secret prisons were established in eight nations, a disclosure that was heavily criticized at the time by Republican lawmakers.
Bush confirmed that among those held at these sites were Abu Zubaida, an associate of Osama bin Laden who allegedly helped train the Sept. 11 hijackers; Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the attacks; and an alleged high-level accomplice, Ramzi Binalshibh.
Bush said the CIA had used an "alternative set of procedures" to question the men because they were trained to resist interrogations, and that these procedures -- which he did not detail -- had borne fruit.
About 100 detainees have been held at the secret prisons at various times, many of whom were transferred months ago to Guantanamo Bay or their native countries, a senior U.S. official said yesterday. Bush said none remains after the "current transfers."
Sources have said that besides waterboarding and temperature extremes, the techniques included the repeated use of sleep deprivation and restricted diets beyond what is authorized under military rules. They also have said that -- contrary to international agreements governing prisoners in wartime -- the CIA's detainees were not allowed contact with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At Guantanamo Bay, officials said, the 14 suspects will be allowed regular visits from the Red Cross, provided lawyers when they are charged and receive the same medical care afforded the U.S. military personnel guarding them.
Bush said that "by giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this program has saved lives."
But an hour before Bush spoke, two senior military officers gave a different account of the efficacy of using such rough interrogation methods. Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said in briefing reporters at the Pentagon on the military's new interrogation rules that "no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that."
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles "Cully" Stimson said interrogators "tell you that the intelligence they get from detainees is best derived through a period of rapport-building, long-term."
Administration officials did not acknowledge any political calculation in yesterday's surprising announcement, saying that it was prompted by the need to bring the terrorism suspects to justice and by the reality that they have lost value as sources because they have been detained for so long. They also said Supreme Court's June decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which put the detainees under the protections of the Geneva Conventions, forced their hand.
"There are two reasons why I'm making these limited disclosures today," Bush said. "First, we have largely completed our questioning of the men -- and to start the process for bringing them to trial, we must bring them into the open. Second, the Supreme Court's recent decision has impaired our ability to prosecute terrorists through military commissions, and has put in question the future of the CIA program."
A senior administration official said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, recognizing pressure from European allies, was among those pushing for the administration to acknowledge the CIA program and to put it on sustainable legal footing.
"The program was extremely beneficial. But as time passed, the costs became more and more apparent," the official said on the condition of anonymity because of sensitivities about internal deliberations. "We concluded that the program needs to continue, but in a different way that was sustainable."
The year-long effort often pitted Rice and two of her closest aides -- legal adviser John B. Bellinger III and counselor Philip D. Zelikow, against Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, according to officials close to the process.
Bush, who was hearing complaints from foreign leaders, pressed for options that would allow him to make a decision. The CIA supported the effort because its officials have worried about being accused of making detainees permanently disappear.
Leading Democrats reacted cautiously to Bush's speech, saying that they have always been in favor of trying terrorism suspects. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the decision to prosecute the alleged masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks "long overdue" and said he backs an effort by Senate lawmakers to write the rules for the trials.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.