- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

1:30 p.m.

President Bush signed legislation today authorizing tough interrogation of terrorist suspects and smoothing the way for trials before military commissions, calling it a “vital tool” in the war against terrorism.

“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,” Mr. Bush said.

A coalition of religious groups staged a protest against the bill outside the White House, shouting “Bush is the terrorist” and “Torture is a crime.” About 15 of the protesters, standing in a light rain, refused orders to move. Police arrested them one by one.

Among those the United States hopes to try are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks; Ramzi Binalshibh, a purported would-be September 11 hijacker; and Abu Zubaydah, who was thought to be a link between Osama bin Laden and many al Qaeda cells.

“It is a rare occasion when a president can sign a bill that he knows will save American lives,” Mr. Bush said. “I have that privilege this morning.”

The president signed the bill in the White House East Room, and among those in the audience were military officers, lawmakers who had helped pass the bill and members of Mr. Bush’s Cabinet.

The law protects detainees from blatant abuses — such as rape, torture and “cruel and inhuman” treatment — during questioning but does not require that any of them be granted legal counsel. Also, it specifically bars detainees from filing habeas corpus petitions to challenge their detentions in federal courts. Mr. Bush said the process is “fair, lawful and necessary.”

“The bill I sign today helps secure this country, and it sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from threats to our freedom,” he said. “We are as determined today as we were on the morning of September 12, 2001.”

Many Democrats opposed the legislation because they said it eliminated rights of defendants considered fundamental to American values, such as a person’s ability to go to court to protest his or her detention and the use of coerced testimony as evidence. Mr. Bush acknowledged that the law came amid dispute.

“Over the past few months, the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex,” he said. “Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few. Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously? And did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the new law is “one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted in American history.”

“The president can now, with the approval of Congress, indefinitely hold people without charge, take away protections against horrific abuse, put people on trial based on hearsay evidence, authorize trials that can sentence people to death based on testimony literally beaten out of witnesses, and slam shut the courthouse door for habeas petitions,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said.

“Nothing could be further from the American values we all hold in our hearts than the Military Commissions Act,” he said.

Mr. Bush needed the legislation because the Supreme Court in June said the administration’s plan for trying detainees in military tribunals violated U.S. and international law.

The legislation, which sets the rules for court proceedings, applies to those selected by the military for prosecution and leaves mostly unaffected the majority of the 14,000 prisoners in U.S. custody, most of whom are in Iraq.

The Pentagon previously selected 10 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison to be tried. Mr. Bush is expected also to try some or all the 14 suspects held by the CIA in secret prisons and recently transferred to military custody at Guantanamo.

The bill also eliminates some rights common in military and civilian courts. For example, the commission would be allowed to consider hearsay evidence so long as a judge determined it was reliable. Hearsay is barred from civilian courts.

The legislation also says the president can “interpret the meaning and application” of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts. White House press secretary Tony Snow said Mr. Bush probably eventually would issue an executive order that would describe his interpretation, but those documents are not usually made public, and Mr. Snow did not reveal when it might be issued.

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