PANAMA CITY – President Bush defended on Monday U.S. interrogation practices and called the treatment of terrorism suspects lawful.
“We do not torture,” Bush declared in response to reports of secret CIA prisons overseas.
Bush supported an effort spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney to block or modify a proposed Senate-passed ban on torture.
“We’re working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it possible, more possible, to do our job,” Bush said. “There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. And so, you bet we will aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law.”
Cheney is seeking to persuade Congress to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from the proposed torture ban if one is passed by both chambers.
Bush spoke at a news conference with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a challenge to the administration’s military tribunals for foreign terror suspects.
In a case entailing a major test of the government’s wartime powers, justices will decide whether Osama bin Laden’s former driver can be tried for war crimes before military officers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, U.S. military forces have held hundreds of suspects at known installations outside the United States, including at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced that five additional terror suspects at Guantanamo will face military trials on various charges, including attacking civilians and murder. That brought to nine out of about 500 detainees at the facility who have been charged with criminal offenses.
Bush was asked about reports that the CIA was separately maintaining secret prisons in eastern Europe and Asia to interrogate al-Qaida suspects – and demands by the International Red Cross for access to them.
Without confirming or denying the existence of such prisons, Bush said, “Our country is at war, and our government has the obligation to protect the American people.”
He pointedly noted that Congress shares that responsibility with the administration.
“We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice. We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do … to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture,” Bush said.
The European Union is investigating reports of the CIA prisons. The story was first reported by The Washington Post.
In Washington, Senate Democrats pressed for the creation of an independent commission to investigate detainee abuse. They hope to attach the proposal to a defense bill the Senate is considering this week.
“We need a 9/11-type commission to restore credibility to this nation,” said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., called the commission unnecessary. “Responsibility and accountability have been assessed,” Warner said, echoing Pentagon arguments that it had already done a dozen major investigations into prisoner-abuse allegations.
But Levin said there are areas that have not been reviewed, such as the CIA’s interrogation of prisoners, the exporting of prisoners to countries that engage in torture, and the role contractors play in interrogations.
Separately, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said Bush’s comments in Panama, combined with Cheney’s efforts to exempt the CIA from the torture ban, “only demonstrate that the White House learned nothing from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”
“This administration has consistently sought legal justifications for harsh techniques,” Kennedy said.
The United States drew worldwide condemnation after photographs circulated showing guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad mistreating and humiliating prisoners.