President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged the existence of previously secret CIA prisons around the world and said 14 high-value terrorism suspects — including the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks — have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay for trials.
He said the "small number" of detainees that have been kept in CIA custody include people responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in addition to the 2001 attacks.
"The most important source of information on where the terrorists are hiding and what they are planning is the terrorists themselves," Mr. Bush said in a White House speech — with families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks making up part of the audience. "It has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held in secret, questioned by experts and, when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts."
The announcement from Mr. Bush is the first time the administration has acknowledged the existence of CIA prisons, which have been a source of friction between Washington and some allies in Europe. The administration has come under criticism for its treatment of terrorism detainees. European Union lawmakers said the CIA was conducting clandestine flights in Europe to take terror suspects to countries where they could face torture.
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says this is a "bold move" by the administration and "a big step toward resolving the fate of these high-level terror detainees who have been held in legal limbo now for years." He cautions, though, that "the next steps aren't going to happen immediately. Congress still has to have its say and we might even have to see another round of Supreme Court review."
The list also includes Riduan Isamuddin, known additionally as Hambali, who was suspected of being Jemaah Islamiyah's main link to al Qaeda and the mastermind of a string of deadly bomb attacks in Indonesia until his 2003 arrest in Thailand.
Defending the program, the president said the questioning of these detainees has provided critical intelligence information about terrorist activities that have enabled officials to prevent attacks not only in the United States, but Europe and other countries. He said the program has been reviewed by administration lawyers and been the subject of strict oversight from within the CIA.
Mr. Bush would not detail the type of interrogation techniques that are used through the program, saying they are tough but do not constitute torture.
"This program has helped us to take potential mass murderers off the streets before they have a chance to kill," the president said. "It is invaluable to America and our allies."
After Mr. Bush's speech, the chief U.S. military prosecutor for Guantanamo Bay said military tribunals could resume there as soon as early 2007.
Also Wednesday, a new U.S Army manual was published, banning torture and degrading treatment of prisoners. And, for the first time, the manual specifically mentions forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Delayed more than a year amid criticism of the Defense Department's treatment of prisoners, the newly released Army Field Manual revises one from 1992.
The manual also explicitly bans beating prisoners, sexually humiliating them, threatening them with dogs, depriving them of food or water, performing mock executions, shocking them with electricity, burning them, causing other pain and a technique called "water boarding" that simulates drowning.
The president's announcement, which the White House touted beforehand and asked to be televised live on the networks, comes as Bush has sought with a series of speeches to sharpen the focus on national security two months before high-stakes congressional elections.
The President successfully emphasized the war on terror in his re-election campaign in 2004 and is trying to make it a winning issue again for Republicans this year.
The president said the 14 key terrorist leaders, including Mohammed, Binalshibh, and Zubaydah, who have been transferred to the U.S. military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay would be afforded some legal protections consistent with the Geneva Conventions.
"They will continue to be treated with the humanity that they denied others," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush also laid out his proposal for how trials of such key suspected terrorists — those transferred to Guantanamo and already there — should be conducted, which must be approved by Congress. Mr. Bush's original plan for the type of military trials used in the aftermath of World War II was struck down in June by the Supreme Court, which said the tribunals would violate U.S. and international law.
Aides said the legislation being introduced on Mr. Bush's behalf later Wednesday on Capitol Hill insists on provisions covering military tribunals that would permit evidence to be withheld from a defendant if necessary to protect classified information.
As part of the package, Mr. Bush asked Congress to shield from prosecution or lawsuits federal personnel who handle terrorist suspects.
"Time is of the essence," the president said. "Passing this legislation ought to be the top priority."
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have drafted a rival proposal. It would guarantee certain legal rights to defendants, including access to all evidence used against them.
"I think it's important that we stand by 200 years of legal precedents concerning classified information because the defendant should have a right to know what evidence is being used," said McCain, R-Ariz.
Administration officials also have said that allowing coerced testimony in some cases may be necessary, while McCain said the committee bill would ban it entirely.
"We have some differences that we are in discussion about," said McCain, who had not seen the White House bill in writing. "I believe we can work this out."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is expected to side with the administration. He planned to introduce Wednesday the White House legislative proposal on the floor and refer it to the Armed Services Committee for review.
Senate Democrats so far are in agreement with Warner and McCain, setting up a potential showdown on the floor this month just before members leave for midterm elections.
The United States began using the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in eastern Cuba in January 2002 to hold people suspected of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban. About 445 detainees remain there, including 115 considered eligible for transfer or release.
The president said he eventually wants to close Guantanamo as critics and allies around the world have urged.