Bush acknowledges CIA prisons exist

Posted in United States | 08-Sep-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Bush delivers a speech on terrorism in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006.
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush acknowledged Wednesday that 14 of the most notorious terrorism suspects had been held and interrogated in secret CIA camps, but said that they had been moved to the Guantánamo Bay detention center to face eventual trial, with the legal protections provided by the Geneva conventions.

Bush said that the International Committee of the Red Cross would be allowed to meet with the men at the U.S. base in Guantánamo, on the Cuban coast.

"Those charged with crimes will be given access to attorneys, who will help them prepare their defense, and they will be presumed innocent," he said.

Bush was speaking five days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to an audience that included some victims' family members. In a series of recent speeches, he has sharpened his public focus on national security, raising its profile ahead of important congressional elections in November.

Bush said that the transfer of the 14 - including some of the chief architects of the Sept. 11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - had emptied the secret CIA camps where the men had been held. But he also made clear that the administration would work to clarify legal questions, so that they could be used again.

"Having a CIA program for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting lifesaving information," he said.

Tribunals of a few detainees had begun earlier, but they were halted amid legal uncertainty.

Bush's statement was the first official acknowledgment of the camps. Revelation of their existence last year by The Washington Post had created tensions with complicit governments that, publicly, had denied their existence.

The president said simply that "a small number of terrorist suspects" had been held and questioned outside the United States in a "special program" by the Central Intelligence Agency.

"This group includes individuals believed to be key architects of the Sept. 11 attacks and attacks on the USS Cole" in Yemen in 2000, as well as on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

"These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terror networks and their plans of new attacks," Bush said. "The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know."

The CIA camps were believed to be in East Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and to have accommodated anywhere from scores of people to 1,000 or more at some point.

Renewing his caution against complacency, Bush said: "The most important source of information on where terrorists are hiding, and what they are planning, is the terrorists themselves. Captured terrorists have unique knowledge about how terror networks operate."

Bush said that he could not divulge the camps' location or any other details, to avoid retribution against U.S. allies.

"I can say that innocent lives have been saved, here in the United States and across the world," he said. He added that interrogation techniques used had been "tough, and they were safe, and lawful and necessary."

Also Wednesday, in a decisive retreat from practices made infamous by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the U.S. Army explicitly banned several interrogation techniques and required all members of the military to observe, "at a minimum," the code set out in the Geneva conventions to protect suspects.

It appeared that in making its surprise announcements, the administration hoped to blunt its critics' arguments while bolstering its own case that high-value detainees cannot be tried exactly as ordinary prisoners of war would be. Bush has been pressing Congress for legislation that would, for example, allow sensitive evidence to be kept from defendants.

Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, offered backhanded praise.

"Today the administration finally recognized that the protections of the Geneva convention should be applied to prisoners in order to restore our moral authority and best protect American troops," he said. For five years, Kerry added, "this administration abused our Constitution, violated our laws and most importantly failed to make America safe."

For more than a year, the administration had been reworking its widely criticized policies on the treatment of suspects. But its move to embrace standards long urged on the United States by many other countries and an array of human rights groups, and to accept a larger level of transparency in doing so, came as something of a surprise.

Bush said that the 14 detainees included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, two of the principal planners of the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They also included Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian who was once a key aide to Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.

The Indonesian-born militant Hambali was also on a list provided by the White House; he is the suspected mastermind of the 2002 bombings in Bali in which more than 200 people, many of them Australian tourists, died.

All the 14 detainees will be granted Geneva protections. At a time uncertain, they will face what surely will be an extraordinary round of legal proceedings. One U.S. Navy official in Guantánamo told reporters that military tribunals there, delayed for months by uncertainty, could begin early next year.

A new U.S. Army manual released Wednesday, which had been withheld for more than a year amid criticism of the Defense Department's treatment of prisoners, explicitly bans eight interrogation techniques: forced nudity or sexual acts, use of hoods or duct tape; beatings; electric shock; the simulated drowning known as "waterboarding," heat or temperature distress; withholding food or water; mock executions; and the use of dogs for intimidation, but not for maintaining security.

Several of those, including the use of dogs, hoods and sexual humiliation, were documented in scores of photos taken by U.S. personnel at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, generating widespread outrage, the prosecution of some military personnel involved, and an intense re-examination of official interrogation rules and how they are policed.

A few new techniques would be allowed for terrorism suspects : a so- called good-cop-bad-cop technique of pairing a hostile interrogator with another who is seemingly sympathetic, and a "false flag" technique in which interrogators pretend to represent a foreign government. In addition, detainees could be held separately from other prisoners to prevent them sharing information.

The revised manual applies to anyone in Defense Department custody, which now includes those high-level prisoners transferred by the CIA to Guantánamo. The intelligence agency has been accused of prisoner mistreatment in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A U.S. Army directive released Wednesday states that it is Defense Department policy that "all detainees shall be treated humanely and in accordance with U.S law, the law of war and applicable U.S. policy."

"All persons subject to this directive shall observe the requirements of the law of war, and shall apply, without regard to a detainee's legal status, at a minimum the standards articulated in Common Article 3 to the Geneva conventions of 1949," it adds.

That article requires humane treatment of people detained during an armed conflict. It forbids "cruel treatment and torture" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment."

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