By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
President Bush enacted controversial changes in the system of interrogating and prosecuting terrorism suspects yesterday, setting the rules for the trials of key al-Qaeda members in a step that he says will help protect the nation.
Surrounded by members of his Cabinet and legislators, Bush signed the changes into law during a White House ceremony as more than 100 protesters stood outside in the rain chanting slogans denouncing the measure as a violation of fundamental American traditions.
The new law imposes tight limits on defendants' traditional courtroom rights, including restrictions on their ability to examine the evidence against them, to challenge their incarceration and to exclude evidence gained through witness coercion.
The president said the extraordinary measure is justified by the extraordinary circumstances of the fight against terrorism. "It is a rare occasion when a president can sign a bill he knows will save American lives," he said, before signing the measure. "I have that privilege this morning."
Bush said the new law will allow the United States to prosecute captured terrorism suspects for "war crimes," and bring to justice the al-Qaeda operatives who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and the August 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The bill also spells out the specific interrogation techniques that are outlawed, while granting retroactive legal protection to military and intelligence personnel who previously participated in rough questioning of terrorism suspects. That provision allows the administration to continue a once-secret CIA program for detaining terrorism suspects and using tough interrogation techniques on those believed to have information about plots against the United States, Bush said.
"This program has been one of the most successful intelligence efforts in American history," Bush said. "It has helped prevent attacks on our country. And the bill I sign today will ensure that we can continue using this vital tool to protect the American people for years to come."
With the midterm elections coming on Nov. 7, congressional Republicans immediately seized on the new law, which was opposed by most Democratic lawmakers, as evidence of their commitment to protect the country against terrorist attacks.
"Capitol Hill Democrats have yet to offer any solutions or formulate any serious national security policy on how to keep America safe in a post-9/11 world," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Bush for signing a measure that they say violates the nation's civil liberties protections. "It is a sad day when the rubber-stamp Congress undercuts our freedoms, assaults our Constitution and lets the terrorists achieve something they could never win on the battlefield," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Human rights advocates have questioned the value of information obtained through aggressive methods, and the military last month abandoned tough interrogation techniques. "No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices," Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, the Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said last month in announcing the Army's new interrogation policy.
Bush approved the prosecution of "unlawful enemy combatants" before special military commissions shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but trials were suspended pending the outcome of appeals questioning their legality in federal court. In June, the Supreme Court struck down the commissions, saying they had not been authorized by Congress and violated the Geneva Conventions. Consequently, the Bush administration pressed Congress to pass a bill to legalize them and to endorse many of the methods used by U.S. intelligence officials to get information from terrorism suspects.
Even with enactment of the legislation, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, trials of terrorism suspects are months away, at least.
The legislation was approved by Congress late last month and is already being challenged by several lawsuits. "This issue is clearly going to be in the courts for years," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It is unconstitutional and un-American."