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Bush signs law authorizing harsh interrogation

WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush signed a law on Tuesday allowing tough CIA interrogation and military trials for terrorism suspects, triggering bitter election-year denunciations from Democrats.

With Republicans in danger of losing control of the U.S. Congress in November 7 elections because of voter anger over the Iraq war, Bush sought to put back on the campaign agenda a more favorable issue for him — national security and dealing with those blamed for the September 11 attacks.

In a White House ceremony, Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He said the new law, the product of frantic September negotiations when senior Republicans broke with him, would bring to trial some of those believed complicit in the September 11 attacks.

But Bush also could not resist a swipe at Democrats, an indirect shot far short of campaign stump speeches in which he charges they are soft on terrorism.

“Every member of the Congress who voted for this bill has helped our nation rise to the task that history has given us. Some voted to support this bill even when a majority of their party voted the other way,” Bush said.

Democrats wasted no time firing back.

“I am deeply disappointed that Congress enacted this law,” said Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. “We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation’s history.”

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said: “The Republican-led Congress missed another opportunity to write a good law because this administration was mostly interested in trying to score political points in the run-up to the elections and avoiding accountability for its unlawful actions.”

The new law means Bush can continue a secret CIA program for interrogating terrorism suspects whom he believes have vital information that could thwart a plot against America.

Human rights groups charge that the measure, likely to face legal challenges that go up as far as the Supreme Court, would allow harsh techniques bordering on torture, such as sleep deprivation and induced hypothermia.

Bush said it would allow intelligence professionals to question suspects without fear of being sued by them later.

“This bill spells out specific recognizable offenses that would be considered crimes in the handling of detainees so that our men and women who question captured terrorists can perform their duties to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

The White House has refused to describe what techniques will be allowed or banned.

The law also establishes military tribunals for terrorism suspects, most of whom are held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Critics and legal experts have predicted the law will draw vigorous court challenges and could be struck down for violating rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

They cited provisions that strip foreign suspects of the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts and what they described as unfair rules for military trials.

Bush insisted the law complies with the spirit and letter of international agreements. “As I’ve said before, the United States does not torture. It’s against our laws and it’s against our values,” he said.

The law was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling in June that Bush lacked legislative authority in setting up his first system of military commissions.

Shortly after Bush signed the law, the Republican National Committee issued a press releasing headlined, “Democrats would let terrorists free” and listed the names of many Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate who opposed it.

The American Civil Liberties Union expressed outrage, calling the new law “one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted in American history.”