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.
One of the techniques, "water-boarding," entails pouring water over victims to make them feel as if they were drowning, a maneuver that often results in a confession within a few seconds.
"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.
In December 2005, the CIA closed prisons in Poland and Romania because of what was in Human Rights Watch reports. Since then, the locations of the prisons, or "black sites," have been secret and the government has all but denied their existence.
A Call to Congress
Bush called on Congress to "list the specific recognizable offenses that would be considered crimes under the War Crimes Act so our personnel can know clearly what is prohibited in the handling of terrorist enemies."
He also asked that Congress "make explicit that by following the standards of the Detainee Treatment Act, our personnel fulfill America's obligations under Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions."
Last, he requested that Congress "make it clear that captured terrorists cannot use the Geneva Conventions as grounds to sue our personnel in courts -- in U.S. courts."
The president also criticized the decision of the Supreme Court that hindered previous attempts to prosecute the prisoners. In late June, the Supreme Court decided to block military tribunals for detainees, stating the prisoners were subject to international law and the Geneva Conventions.
"We have a right under the laws of war, and an obligation to the American people, to detain these enemies and stop them," Bush said in his afternoon address.
The Supreme Court decision was a major rebuke to the Bush administration, as it required the president to first seek the approval of Congress before ordering prisoners to be tried for war crimes.
The decision forced the administration to reconsider the legal battle against the prisoners, and made their future uncertain.
Bush urged Congress to make the legislation a top priority in the next session as the issues are "urgent" and "time is of the essence."