Story Highlights• GOP senator says U.S. should act quickly to create legal tribunals
• Top terror suspects to be transferred from CIA to military custody
• President acknowledges existence of secret CIA prisons
• No torture permitted at secret CIA prisons, Bush said
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The CIA operates secret prisons abroad for holding key suspects in the war on terror, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday.
Though Bush said the United States never tortures suspects, "alternative" interrogation methods are used to glean information from them. These procedures "were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary," he said.
Bush's acknowledgement came as the president announced that he was sending legislation to Congress that would authorize military tribunals for terror suspects and set clear rules to protect U.S. military personnel from facing prosecution for war crimes. (Watch reaction to Bush's speech -- 1:55)
Also on Wednesday, the Pentagon issued a revised Army Field Manual that requires detainees be "treated humanely and in accordance with U.S. law, the law of war and applicable U.S. policy." (Watch how nudity, duct tape and electric shock are now banned -- 2:28)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that tribunals convened at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were unconstitutional.
The High Court also ruled that al Qaeda operatives were protected by the Geneva Conventions, which ban "humiliating and degrading treatment." Bush called that mandate "vague."
The Washington Post first reported in November that the CIA was holding terror suspects in secret prisons overseas, including in former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe.
The White House would not confirm the report, but an investigation by the Council of Europe found evidence of a "global system of secret detentions and unlawful transfers."
Secret prisons, alternative interrogation methods and military tribunals are integral to keeping Americans safe, Bush said Wednesday.
"In this new war, the most important source of information on where the terrorists are hiding and what they are planning is the terrorists themselves," he said. "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."
While many are familiar with Guantanamo Bay, Bush said the CIA maintains other holding facilities for prisoners, including "key operatives" involved in the September 11 attacks, the attack in 2000 on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen, and the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. (Watch Bush admit U.S. has secret prisons -- 6:01)
"These are dangerous men with unparalleled knowledge about terrorist networks and their plans of new attacks," the president said. "The security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know."
Fourteen al Qaeda operatives in CIA custody have been transferred to Guantanamo to face military tribunals, including Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the reputed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, the president said. (Profiles of the detainees)
"With these prosecutions, we will send a clear message to those who kill Americans: No matter how long it takes, we will bring them to justice," he said to applause from the assembled administration officials and guests.
Legislation en route
Though the details of the proposal are unclear, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, began circulating draft legislation on the tribunals two weeks ago. Key players met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, on Tuesday to discuss the proposal.
Legislation is expected to be passed before the November elections, a senior State Department official said.
Guantanamo detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who officials say has admitted to being Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and driver, filed the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court's ban on tribunals.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Congress had not issued the president a "blank check." But he added that "nothing prevents the president from returning to Congress to seek the authority he believes necessary."
Hamdan's attorney, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Swift, said asking Congress to approve procedures that the Supreme Court already struck down was "an opportunity for nothing more than more mistakes."
"For me, representing Mr. Hamdan has been about defending our values as much as defending him," Swift said. "Our values are not demonstrated in the commissions, at least no commission that's been authorized to date."
Democrats had similar reactions.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called Bush's proposal "long overdue." California Rep. Jane Harman, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, added, "It's a shame that it took a Supreme Court opinion, a law banning torture, and public outcry to get him here."
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a reserve military judge who has taken a leading role in the debate over military tribunals, said the U.S. needs to move quickly to implement military tribunals that will withstand judicial scrutiny but still hold terrorists accountable. He conceded, however, that there is likely to be some butting of heads between the Oval Office and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
One contentious issue, Graham said, will be whether a tribunal could use classified information.
"I do not believe it is necessary to have a trial where the accused cannot see the evidence against them," Graham said in a written statement. "I fear that creating such a procedure would not be well-received by the courts. The military legal officers serving in uniform have also expressed concern that this could establish a precedent that could be used against our own troops."
Allegations that Americans have tortured prisoners captured in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have dogged the Bush administration since April 2004, when graphic photographs of Army reservists mistreating prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad became public. (Watch Bush explain why Iraq is central to the war on terror -- 1:51)
The president's speech was intended in part to address international concerns about the secret prisons, a senior State Department official said.
The official also said there were no detainees still in the secret CIA prisons but that the CIA still has the authority to detain suspects.
Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.
Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is among 14 detainess to be transferred.
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