President Bush announced that 14 "high-value" detainees, who were held at secret CIA prisons, were transferred to the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay and granted protection under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. It is the first time the administration publicly acknowledged the existence of the prisons.
"These are dangerous men, with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist 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 protections apply to all prisoners now being held by the CIA, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept.11 attacks, Abu Zubaydah, and senior al Qaeda leader Ramzi Binalshibh. While the detainees may not be household names, they were top aides to Osama bin Laden, and the veritable "crown jewels" of the military operations that have been conducted in Afghanistan.
Many detainees were given the legal status of "enemy combatant," which includes both lawful enemy combatants and unlawful enemy combatants.
Until now, the U.S. government has not officially acknowledged the existence of CIA prisons. The Bush administration has come under harsh criticism for the way it has handled detainees captured in the U.S.-led military campaign to root out al Qaeda terror cells abroad.
In an afternoon address, Bush defended the aim of the secret program without specifically addressing the controversial interrogation techniques that were first reported in November 2005 by ABC News' chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross. The administration has come under criticism not only for the secret detentions but for the alleged psychological and physical stress they put on prisoners during interrogations.
"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," Bush said in his afternoon address.
"The CIA program has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists," Bush said.
The statement leaves open the possibility that while the 14 detainees have been moved from CIA to Department of Defense custody, the CIA program to hold and interrogate detainees is still active. "Black sites," or secret prisons, may still hold high-value al Qaeda prisoners.
Today's announcement provides a mechanism to move detainees out of CIA custody once interrogators have obtained any "time-sensitive, threat related" information, according to one intelligence source.
Bush said torture is not condoned, but he said that as it became clear that Zubaydah had been trained on how to resist interrogation, the CIA "used an alternative set of procedures," which he said were "designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations."
Bush did not explain what the "safe and lawful and necessary" procedures were. But "enhanced interrogation techniques" instituted in mid March 2002 were used on the 14 top al Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to eastern Europe. According to intelligence sources, only a handful of CIA interrogators are trained and authorized to use the techniques, which include slapping and scare tactics.