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Bush Concedes CIA Ran Secret Prisons Abroad

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today President Bush acknowledged publicly for the first time the existence of secret overseas prisons run by the CIA. The president said top terrorism suspects had been interrogated at these prisons, giving the U.S. information that's prevented major attacks.

The president also announced that 14 terrorist leaders have been transferred from CIA custody to Defense Department custody at Guantanamo Bay. And he called on Congress to approve his bill creating military commissions to try those prisoners.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: The president's speech today was heavily promoted by the White House. In the audience in the East Room were the vice president, members of the Cabinet, representatives from Congress and people who lost family members in the 9/11 attacks. From the start the president stressed that potential attacks have been thwarted, in part because of information the CIA has collected from al-Qaida members.

GEORGE W: Captured terrorists have unique knowledge about how terrorist networks operate. They have knowledge where the operatives are deployed and knowledge about what plots are underway. This is intelligence that cannot be found any other place. And our security depends on getting this kind of information.

GONYEA: And the president defended the practice of using previously secret CIA prisons.

BUSH: To win the war on terror, we must be able to detain, question and when appropriate prosecute terrorists captured here in America and on the battlefields around the world.

GONYEA: Today he announced that 14 such prisoners had been transferred from CIA custody and turned over to the Department of Defense, but he said this does not mean the CIA is out of the picture. He said there are currently no terrorists in the program but that, as more are captured, having such a program will continue to be crucial.

The prisoners just transferred to Guantanamo include some major al-Qaida operatives who have been held for years, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is believed to have been a leading figure in the 9/11 attacks, and Abu Zubaida, said to be a key link between al-Qaida leaders and terror cells around the world. The president said that during CIA interrogation, these prisoners yielded important information but only very reluctantly and over time.

BUSH: I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough and they were safe and lawful and necessary.

GONYEA: The United States has been accused of mistreating prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, but the president insisted that they are being and will be treated humanely.

BUSH: While at Guantanamo they will have access to the same food, clothing, medical care and opportunities for worship as other detainees. They will be questioned subject to the new U.S. Army field manual, which the Department of Defense is issuing today. And they will continue to be treated with the humanity that they denied others.

GONYEA: The president again said he'd like to eventually close Guantanamo but that won't happen until the 445 prisoners being held there are either tried or when their home nations agree to take them back.

And the president called on Congress to act this month on his bill creating military commissions to try these suspects. The bill includes rules that would allow the court to try suspects without showing them evidence considered to be classified information. That did not please one key senator, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said the U.S. would never allow another country to try Americans under such rules.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you want our guys tried in a forum where they never saw the evidence? No. I don't believe from a practical point of view that there are going to be cases where the only evidence to convict the accused is of a classified nature and can't be shared. I just don't think that's a reality that we need to be dealing with.

GONYEA: But Mr. Bush today asked Congress to accept his proposed rules immediately, saying those who lost loved ones on 9/11 have waited too long for justice.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.