WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed legislation yesterday providing for the detention and prosecution of suspected terrorists, and the Justice Department moved immediately to request the dismissal of dozens of lawsuits filed by detainees challenging their incarceration.
Bush signed the legislation in an elaborate East Room ceremony, calling it a "vital tool" in the administration's war on terror, while Republican officials immediately unleashed campaign broadsides, saying that the measure's Democratic critics support the freeing of terrorists.
The new law thus became part of the Bush administration's campaign push to preserve its congressional majority in the midterm election and the beginning of a new chapter in fashioning a judicial process for those captured around the world in U.S. military and counterterrorism operations.
The law is likely to generate legal challenges. Aside from the request that federal courts throw out detainee lawsuits, judges also will be asked to decide new legal questions that again could wind up before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, human rights groups said it is far from clear how the new law will be implemented, and the CIA has asked Justice Department lawyers to review interrogation guidelines.
The legislation sets new ground rules for the CIA to conduct interrogations and allows for the prosecution of suspected terrorists before military tribunals. Bush said the measure will enable the United States to bring to justice the coordinators of the Sept. 11 attacks and will allow the CIA to continue an aggressive interrogation program that he said had disrupted further terrorist strikes.
"With the bill I'm about to sign, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people will face justice," Bush said, sitting at a table with a sign on the front that said "Protecting America." The president said he signed the law "in memory of the victims" of Sept. 11.
He was surrounded by military officers, members of his Cabinet and lawmakers who helped pass the bill. Several dozen protesters chanted slogans outside in the rain, branding the measure an affront to civil liberties.
The enactment of the law - four months after the Supreme Court said that an earlier plan for handling terrorism cases violated federal law - was good news for Bush as casualties have mounted in Iraq and his handling of the war on terror has come under intense criticism.
The signing ceremony was part political rally for a Republican Party that is struggling to retain control of Congress three weeks before a pivotal midterm election. GOP leaders said the legislation showed that they were a party of strength, and they assailed Democrats for not supporting the measure.
"The Democratic plan would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans' lives," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.
House Democrats, who overwhelmingly opposed the legislation, "voted in favor of new rights for terrorists," Hastert said, adding that the Democrats had "put their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America."
The Justice Department moved swiftly to enforce one of the law's more controversial provisions. Within two hours of the signing ceremony, Justice Department lawyers notified the U.S. appeals court in Washington that the new law had been enacted, "eliminating federal court jurisdiction." The court is overseeing dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lawyers for the detainees responded with their own filing yesterday, requesting time to present legal arguments that the law violates the Constitution. The appeals court took no immediate action.
The detainees' lawyers, who won victories on behalf of their clients in two previous cases against the Bush administration that went to the Supreme Court - involving detainees Shafiq Rasul and Salim Ahmed Hamdan - said they were confident that they would prevail again.
"We beat them in Rasul. We beat them in Hamdan. Now they have tried to beat us in Congress. I don't think it will work," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York advocacy group that has represented a number of the detainees. "They have been slapped down twice. I think they will be slapped down again."
The Bush administration has identified about two dozen suspects it plans to put on trial, including accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who, along with 13 other high-profile suspects, was recently transferred from CIA custody to Guantanamo Bay.
The rules do not affect the vast majority of the estimated 435 prisoners being held at Guantanamo. Unless the military decides to bring charges, most of the detainees will remain in legal limbo, without opportunity to challenge their status under the new law.
Bush said the new interrogation rules would enable the CIA to restart a program of tough questioning of suspected terrorists that ground to a halt more than a year ago in the wake of a congressional debate over legislation barring the use of torture and questions about whether rough treatment of detainees would subject operatives to prosecution for war crimes.
A senior Bush administration official said that the CIA has not finalized a list of interrogation tactics or procedures, but when it does, it will submit its new program to the Justice Department for legal review, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the CIA effort. Once the CIA gets the blessing of the Justice Department, the program will be brought to Congress, the official said.
"The CIA will have to brief its program to an oversight committee," the official said. "This is the beginning of the conversation, not the end."
Richard B. Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.