WASHINGTON -- In a dramatic announcement, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday that he had authorized a secret CIA detention program and announced plans to bring to trial 14 top terrorism suspects, including some of the alleged architects of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush used the announcement, delivered five days before the fifth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, to challenge Congress to authorize him to wage the war on terrorism on his terms. At stake is defining how the rule of law governs the executive branch as it deals with captives who it suspects are terrorists.
Speaking to a White House audience that included relatives of Sept. 11 victims, Bush demanded that lawmakers revive his plan for military tribunals without key legal safeguards for those on trial, legalize the CIA's detention program and shield U.S. officials from prosecution for possible war crimes.
Leading lawmakers in both parties said they would insist that the detainee trials offer legal rights that Bush opposes, but the president's announcement appeared to be intended to give him more leverage in his negotiations with Congress over how to try suspected terrorists.
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After refusing for months to confirm media reports of secret CIA prisons, which some Republicans likened to treason, Bush pulled the lid off a CIA program intended to extract information from ''high-value'' terrorism suspects. His narrative of the CIA's interrogation efforts gave him a chance to highlight some of the administration's successes in the war on terrorism two months before November's congressional elections, in which Republicans are emphasizing their tough approach to national security.
The CIA's captives included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ramzi Binalshibh, another suspected 9/11 plotter, as well as others linked to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Relatives of the attacks' victims applauded and cheered when Bush declared his intention to bring the two captives and 12 other top terrorism suspects to trial ''as soon as Congress acts'' on his plan for military tribunals.
Bush said information gleaned from the CIA interrogations helped thwart attacks on the United States. It also provided invaluable information on terror cells, al Qaeda's efforts to develop biological weapons and the location of key al Qaeda operatives, he said. He and other administration officials wouldn't provide details on the CIA prisons.
Two U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because those details remain classified, said the CIA's program of interrogating some prisoners and sending others to third countries for questioning produced a mixture of some good information and some false information from prisoners eager to end harsh treatment.
In addition to the potential political benefits, Bush had other reasons to make the program public. A Supreme Court ruling in June struck down the administration's plan to bring terrorism suspects before military tribunals and called into question the legality of secret CIA detentions.
The court said Bush needed congressional approval to establish the military tribunals and ruled that terrorism suspects are entitled to basic protections under the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of wartime captives.
Lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and civil liberties groups called Bush's announcement a cynical effort to stiff-arm Congress and score political points.
''The president's acknowledgements today do not gloss over the gross illegalities at Guantánamo or in secret CIA prisons,'' the Center for Constitutional Rights, a group that works with detainees, said in a statement. ``The administration must be forced to justify why hundreds of men have been detained in Guantánamo for five years without any hearing.''
Bush insisted that the CIA hasn't engaged in torture, but he said the Geneva Conventions' prohibition against ''humiliating and degrading treatment'' could potentially cause legal problems for CIA interrogators.
''I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it -- and I will not authorize it,'' the president said.
However, he added: ``Some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act -- simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way. This is unacceptable.''
Bush and other administration officials declined to discuss the CIA's interrogation tactics, which the two intelligence officials said has included ''water-boarding,'' a technique that makes its victim fear he's drowning.
RULES FOR TREATMENT
In another development Wednesday, the Pentagon issued a new manual on the treatment of prisoners that explicitly prohibits water-boarding, sexual humiliation, electric shocks, the threatening use of dogs and other degrading or painful tactics.
Bush suggested that the CIA should have more latitude, while avoiding the use of torture.
He also strongly defended the use of ''tough'' interrogation methods in describing the case of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al Qaeda operative who was nursed back to health by the CIA after he was wounded in a firefight. He said Zubaydah, who is believed to be a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden, resisted questioning until the CIA ''used an alternative set of procedures,'' which Bush declined to specify.
Once he started talking, Bush said, Zubaydah helped the CIA capture Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, and his alleged co-plotter Binalshibh.
BUSH WANTS ACTION
Bush challenged Congress to act swiftly on legislation that would clear the way for his version of military trials and lift the legal cloud over the CIA's interrogation program, permitting it to resume.
''This is intelligence that cannot be found any other place,'' Bush said. ``And our security depends on getting this kind of information.''
Some lawmakers chafed at what they viewed as an effort to force them into line behind Bush's approach.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he would immediately introduce legislation sponsoring the administration's plan for military tribunals.
Three leading Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee who have offered an alternative to Bush's plan said they're willing to seek a compromise with the president, but don't plan to fold. They are Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the committee.
Their alternative would prohibit the use of testimony obtained through coercive interrogation, restrict the use of hearsay evidence and give judges the right to decide whether defendants should be allowed to see classified information that could be used against them. Bush opposes those terms.