By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006; 10:52 AM
Invoking the memory of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush today signed into law a bill that allows tough interrogation of terrorist suspects and establishes military commissions to try them.
In a speech before signing the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Bush said the new law "is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the war on terror" and "will save American lives."
He said it will allow the CIA to continue a previously secret program to detain and interrogate terrorist suspects in clandestine prisons abroad, a program he called "one of the most successful intelligence efforts in American history" and one that "has helped prevent attacks on our country."
The new law also will "allow us to prosecute captured terrorists for war crimes," bringing to justice the al-Qaeda operatives who plotted the Sept. 11 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, Bush said.
The legislation was approved by Congress late last month after a debate in which opponents charged that a key provision — ruling out habeas corpus petitions for foreigners held in the war on terrorism — was unconstitutional. A key foe of that provision, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tried unsuccessfully to delete it, but ended up voting for the overall bill anyway on grounds that the Supreme Court would be likely to strike the provision down. The writ of habeas corpus, which is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, allows people to challenge in court the legality of their detention, essentially meaning that they cannot be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
The new law authorizes the president "to establish military commissions for the trial of alien unlawful enemy combatants engaged in hostilities against the United States for violations of the law of war and other offenses. . . ." Under the rules in the bill, statements obtained from a detainee by torture would not be admissible as evidence, but information extracted using harsh interrogation methods that violate a ban on "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" would be allowed if they were obtained before the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 went into effect on Dec. 30 and if a judge found them to be reliable and in the "interests of justice."
The legislation also sets the parameters for interrogating terrorism suspects. It bars the president from authorizing any interrogation techniques that amount to war crimes, which it says include torture, murder, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse, serious bodily injury, hostage-taking, biological experiments and cruel or inhuman treatment. However, the president could "interpret the meaning and application" of Geneva Convention standards regarding less severe interrogation methods.
Under a compromise with three recalcitrant Republican senators, the bill omitted a provision sought by Bush that interpreted U.S. obligations under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Critics said that provision amounted to redefining a key part of the conventions and would put captured U.S. troops at risk if an enemy decided to do the same.
In today’s statement in the East Room of the White House, Bush declared, "With the bill I’m about to sign, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people will face justice." He mentioned specifically Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ramzi Binalshibh, a top al-Qaeda member allegedly involved in planning the attacks. They were among 14 detainees who were transferred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last month after being held and interrogated by the CIA in secret detention facilities overseas.
Among those attending the signing ceremony today were Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, CIA director Michael V. Hayden and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bush said the new law "sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from the threats to our freedom. . . . will meet our obligation to protect our people. And no matter how long it takes, justice will be done."
He said the law "allows for the clarity our intelligence professionals need to continue questioning terrorists and saving lives," adding that it "provides legal protections that ensure our military and intelligence personnel will not have to fear lawsuits filed by terrorists simply for doing their jobs."
Bush hailed what he described as successes of the CIA detention program. "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," he said. "By allowing our intelligence professionals to continue this vital program, this bill will save American lives."
The military commissions "will provide a fair trial in which the accused are presumed innocent, have access to an attorney and can hear all the evidence against them," Bush said. "These military commissions are lawful, they are fair, and they are necessary."
Saying that the bill "reaffirms our determination to win the war on terror," he concluded by announcing he was signing it "in memory of the victims of September the 11th."