Bush Signs Terrorism Tribunal Bill

President Bush signs into law sweeping legislation that enables the United States to detain, interrogate and try terrorism suspects. The package was approved by Congress two weeks ago. Experts say the ultimate test of Bush's detainee policy will probably come in the courts. But for now, the president has the free hand he has insisted he needs. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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President Bush has signed legislation establishing military commissions for terror suspects. The new law also condones tough interrogation techniques aimed at getting information out of detainees, and it means new life for the CIA's secret prison program, which the president only acknowledged existed last month.

Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 after the White House overcame early objections by some prominent Republicans senators, including John McCain.

NPR's Don Gonyea begins our coverage from the White House.

DON GONYEA: The bill signing took place in the formal East Room of the White House. Arrayed behind the president along with the American flags were Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace and CIA Director General Michael Hayden.

Also in that row, five members of Congress including Republican Senators John Warner and Lindsey Graham, who had initially resisted the president's proposals.

The president opened with this.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Welcome to the White House on a historic day. It is a rare occasion when a president can sign a bill he knows will save American lives. I have that privilege this morning.

GONYEA: One reason this law was written was because the Supreme Court struck down a system of military tribunals that had been set up by the Bush administration without congressional authority.

Debate in Congress centered on whether this new law provides basic rights for detainees. Mr. Bush addressed that today.

President BUSH: Over the past few months, the debate over this bill has been heated and the questions raised can seem complex. Yet with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few. Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously? And did we do what it takes to defeat that threat? Every member of Congress who voted for this bill has helped our nation rise to the task that history has given us.

GONYEA: One senator who opposed the legislation, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, issued a statement saying it violates basic principles and values of our Constitution, allowing the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely.

The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, said the law makes it possible for people to be tried and put to death based on hearsay or testimony coerced by beatings. The Bush administration says the law does not allow torture.

As the president signed the bill, a group of protesters marched in the rain outside on Pennsylvania Avenue.

(Soundbite of protester singing)

Unidentified Man (Protestor): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

GONYEA: The demonstration was organized by a coalition of religious groups. Inside, the president sat at a small desk with a sign that read, protecting America. Mr. Bush did not, however, issue a so-called signing statement, a kind of comment he has used often to highlight his objections to a certain elements of bills he's signed. When asked why there was no such catalogue included in this occasion, the president's press secretary said it's because the White House had been active in drafting the bill and thinks everything in it is constitutional. A test of that is likely coming down the road in the courts.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House.

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