Bush Admits Secret Prisons, Transfers Alleged 9/11 Plotters To Guantanamo Bay

President denies torture of suspects held overseas.

In his third speech on terrorism over the past week, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday that the CIA has run secret prisons overseas that he said have been "vital" tools in the war on terror. Bush said that rigorous interrogations at those facilities have resulted in terrorist leaders giving up information on plans to attack the U.S., Britain and other allies and that 14 of those leaders — including accused the mastermind of the September 11 attacks — have been transferred to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay to stand trial.

Bush's first admission of the covert jails came during a White House speech in front of an audience that included the families of some 9/11 victims. "This program has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists," he said. "Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland."

While acknowledging the secret prisons, Bush would not discuss where they were or what kind of interrogation the prisoners underwent in them, though he maintained that they were not tortured (see "Report Of 'Covert' CIA Jail Sparks Human-Rights Investigation"). "I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture," Bush said. "It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it."

"I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why," Bush said. "If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary." The president said that the information provided by the terrorists who were in CIA custody led to the capture or questioning of almost all of the senior al Qaeda members detained by the U.S. and its allies since the program began shortly after the September 11 attacks.

With the transfer of the 14 men to Guantánamo Bay, the CIA currently has no detainees, according to Bush. A senior administration official told The Associated Press that the CIA had detained fewer than 100 suspected terrorists in the history of the program.

Among the 14 detainees transferred were the accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged would-be 9/11 hijacker Ramzi Binalshibh and al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden's field commander, Abu Zubaydah. The suspects also include those thought to be responsible for the bombing of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole in 2000 in Yemen and the 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The administration plan to set up military tribunals to try the suspects is expected to meet with some resistance from Congress, including a trio of Republican senators who have drafted a rival proposal that would allow the defendants access to all evidence used against them and prohibit coerced testimony (see "Bush Administration Asks Congress To Define Rights Of Terrorism Detainees ").

The administration had refused to acknowledge the existence of the CIA prisons to date, but according to the AP, Bush decided to go public with the information now because the questioning of the suspects was mostly complete and because the CIA program has been jeopardized by a recent Supreme Court ruling. That ruling found that the prisoner protections in the Geneva Conventions banning torture and cruel treatment should extend to members of al Qaeda. Administration officials said they worried that the court's ruling could leave U.S. personnel vulnerable to prosecution under the War Crimes Act because of the vague language of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of detainees (see "What Are The Geneva Conventions?").

Bush said interrogators have gotten information that has helped make photo identifications of terror suspects, pinpoint terrorist hiding places, provide ways to make sense of documents, identify voice recordings and understand the meaning of terrorist communications, al Qaeda's travel routes and hiding places, the AP reported.

The revelation of the CIA prisons came on the same day that the Pentagon released a new Army field manual that specifically bans torture and degrading treatment during prisoner interrogations, including bars on practices such as forced nakedness, hooding, beating, sexual humiliation, threatening with dogs, depriving of food or water, performing mock executions, electrical shocks, burning and a form of simulated drowning called "water boarding." The CIA is not subject to the new Army rules.