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U.S. President George W. Bush admitted for the first time that the CIA has been operating clandestine prisons as he announced plans to try 14 high-profile terrorist suspects -- including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks -- who have been held at the secret jails.

After his administration spent months steadfastly refusing to confirm the existence of the widely criticized "black sites," Mr. Bush not only acknowledged that terrorists had been "held and questioned outside the United States" by the Central Intelligence Agency but he praised the program as one that had broken up several plots and kept "potential mass murderers off the streets before they were able to kill us." The presumed terrorists, including suspects in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, have already been transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where 455 other suspects are also being held.

Mr. Bush strongly defended the clandestine program, saying it had saved lives and remained "vital to the security of the United States and our friends and allies." While admitting that procedures used in the detention centres were "tough," Mr. Bush denied any use of torture. "It's against our laws and against our values."

The group of transferred prisoners includes Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; Abu Zubaydah, a key link between Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operatives; and Ramzi Binalshibh, a would-be Sept. 11 hijacker.

The surprise admission by Mr. Bush was part of a series of announcements yesterday timed for maximum political effect just days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Bush said he was introducing legislation that would allow "enemy combatants" to be tried by special military commissions.

The Pentagon also made public new rules banning abusive treatment of prisoners, marking a reversal from earlier policy which said the terrorists did not qualify for that kind of legal protection.

In asking Congress to set out the rules for the military commissions, Mr. Bush was responding to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that earlier trial plans violated U.S. and international law. He was making it clear that in the future the United States will play by the rules of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to the treatment of prisoners.

But by announcing the transfer of the 14 suspects to Guantanamo, Mr. Bush was anxious to portray himself as the leader of the war on terrorism and to put his Democratic opponents on the defensive in the run-up to crucial congressional mid-term elections in November. The families of Sept. 11 victims were invited to witness the President's 35-minute speech in the White House, which was broadcast live on national TV.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer lashed out at the Bush administration for flouting international law for so long. "Their bull-in-the-china-shop approach -- ignore the Constitution, ignore the rule of law -- has made us worse off than if we had gone to Congress originally."

The existence of the secret prisons and the surreptitious transfer of suspects by chartered aircraft across Europe and Asia was first revealed in November of 2005 by The Washington Post, touching off a wave of indignation, particularly among European governments.

A month later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent several days in Europe, refusing to answer any questions about the prisons, pleading that "we have an obligation to defend our people, and we will use every lawful means to do so." National-security adviser Stephen Hadley was no more forthcoming, but he insisted that even if the secret prisons did exist, they wouldn't be used for torture. In his own tortured language, he stated, "The fact that they are secret, assuming there are such sites, does not mean" that torture would be tolerated.

In yesterday's speech, Mr. Bush divulged details of how the questioning of Mr. Zubaydah led first to the capture of Mr. Binalshibh and then to Mr. Mohammed's arrest. He said that the CIA interrogations led to the breakup of a South Asian cell of al-Qaeda that was planning an attack on the United States, likely with the use of aircraft, in addition to breaking up a separate plot involving the use of deadly anthrax.

Mr. Bush said the clandestine facilities were now empty of all prisoners but he said that "having a CIA program for questioning terrorists will continue to be crucial to getting life-saving information." Mr. Bush did not identify where the secret prisons had been located but a report from the Council of Europe in June said it believed there had been sites in Romania and Poland.

Mr. Bush urged Congress to pass the new rules for military commissions during their current month-long session prior to their election recess. But the President's proposed law is likely to prompt a battle in the Senate involving Republican moderates John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have drafted a proposal that would include the right of defendants in terrorism cases to have access to all evidence used against them.

Mr. Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, worried that keeping evidence away from a terrorism suspect would set a precedent that other countries could follow if a U.S. soldier were arrested and put on trial.

Critics were quick to lash out at the Bush administration for failing to fully enforce the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war. They also are leery of a section of the proposed law that would exempt civilian interrogators of terrorist prisoners from being subject to the U.S. War Crimes Act for abuses they may commit. Mr. Bush claims that if the law isn't changed, "our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing terrorists and questioning terrorists could now be at the risk of prosecution."

"We must not abandon the very freedoms that define America, and we urge Congress to reject the President's proposal," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said that interrogators who threatened detainees with death or subjected them to other forms of abuse would have a "get out of jail free" card under the proposed law.

Transferred from secret prisons

U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday that 14 detainees have been transferred from secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons to Guantanamo Bay for trial. He said the CIA facilities have held several well-known terrorist suspects, including:

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed: Born in Pakistan. Alleged to have been a top-tier al-Qaeda leader before being arrested in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 2003. Thought to have been the principal planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against targets in Washington and New York.

Ramzi Binalshibh: Born in Yemen. Believed to have been the "20th hijacker" and to have belonged to an al-Qaeda cell in Germany, where he shared an apartment with ringleader Mohamed Atta. Denied a U.S. visa before the Sept. 11 attacks, and was arrested in Karachi on Sept. 11, 2002.

Abu Zubaydah: Born in Saudi Arabia. Thought to have worked as a recruiter for al-Qaeda and to have led the failed 2000 "Millennium plot" attacks against targets in Amman and Los Angeles. He was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March of 2002.

Riduan Isamuddin: Born in Indonesia. Known as Hambali and often described as Southeast Asia's answer to Osama bin Laden, he was linked to the 2002 Bali bombings and efforts to spread Islamic theocracy across the region. He was captured in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in August of 2003.

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