WASHINGTON – The CIA interrogation program should now be back in business, and terrorist trials can begin right away, according to proponents of new legislation passed by Congress.
The legislation is a major victory for President George W. Bush, whose detention and interrogation program was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in June. Bush turned to Congress and was able to push through legislation that would revive his programs that he says are vital to his anti-terror efforts.
Lawmakers passed the bill and sent it Friday to the president to sign.
While the measure potentially applies to all 14,000 foreign detainees, it is not expected to change the lives of many. Most are in military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan and are unlikely to face aggressive, prolonged interrogations by CIA operatives. The Defense Department is expected to prosecute fewer than two dozen detainees.
Under the bill, Bush can convene military commissions to prosecute terror suspects so long as he follows certain guidelines. The bill also for the first time provides specific definitions of abusive treatment of prisoners, although critics say it leaves unclear precisely what methods would be allowed.
Sen. John McCain and other proponents of the bill say it would prohibit such cruel interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, but others have said that is uncertain.
The measure bans abusive interrogations for all detainees in U.S. custody, though in practical terms these protections will affect mostly terrorism suspects in CIA custody. Bush has said the CIA handed over to the military the last 14 detainees it had been holding secretly, and they are now at the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The bill probably will have little effect on most detainees -- those being held by the military -- because they already were covered by Pentagon guidelines that ban abusive interrogations.
So far, the military says it has enough evidence to try only 10 prisoners, all held at Guantanamo. The remaining detainees, mostly jailed in Iraq, can be held without charge until hostilities there end.
The president previously attempted to prosecute terrorism suspects without congressional approval. The administration was stopped by the Supreme Court, which ruled in June his system was illegal and violated the nation's treaty obligations.
Congress stepped in, with majority Republicans pushing through legislation that would allow Bush to resume trials.
Under the bill, Mohammed and others selected for prosecution would be guaranteed legal counsel and a chance to defend themselves against specific charges.
But the prisoners not prosecuted, including those swept up in the battlefield in Iraq, would not be guaranteed legal recourse. This would seem to have little effect on them because, practically speaking, prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan currently have no real way to protest their detentions in U.S. courts.
Critics say the bill could violate the U.S. Constitution, which dictates equal legal protection for anyone under U.S. jurisdiction, because it bars detainees from protesting their detentions in court. That right is called habeas corpus, and eliminating it for many of the detainees will allow Bush to hold them forever without charge.
"What they've done with this legislation is wipe out -- abolish -- the writ of habeas corpus for any alien held by the United States anywhere in the world," said Michael Ratner at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
To proponents, the bill reaffirms decades of historic precedents.
"Until two years ago, no enemy alien held in wartime outside the United States had ever been allowed to bring a habeas case in our own courts," said John Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped write internal memos in 2002 designed to give the government more leeway in rough interrogations.
Among those captured and detained without legal recourse is Bilal Hussein, an AP photographer who has been held without charge in Iraq by the U.S. military since April.
"I don't know anything about it," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday when asked about the case.
"From time to time someone gets detained for various reasons," Rumsfeld said. "And there's a process where they sort through it. And obviously the last thing in the world for the U.S. military is to want to hold anybody they don't have to hold. They have no desire to be holding people that shouldn't be held."
Lawmakers who pushed the bill through Congress said the terror trials could begin right away, which would enable Bush to steal the media spotlight just as voters go to the polls on Nov. 7.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said he did not think the trials could begin so soon because of the logistics involved, including finding facilities to stage the trials.