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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. military lawyers on Thursday challenged President George W. Bush's plan to try terrorism suspects, including the accused Sept. 11 mastermind, as Democrats charged the White House with election-year fearmongering.
In a fourth speech highlighting a tough-on-terror image that helped Republicans win elections in 2002 and 2004, Bush tried to shift attention from the unpopular Iraq war and emphasize protecting the United States from new attacks as his party fights to keep control of Congress.
Invoking Sept. 11, Bush pressed Congress to establish special military tribunals to try foreign terrorism suspects, including 14 transferred this week from secret CIA prisons abroad to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Among them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington five years ago, which killed almost 3,000 people.
"The sooner the Congress authorizes the military commissions I have called for, the sooner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will receive the justice he deserves," Bush said.
The House of Representatives plans to vote during the week of Sept. 18 on legislation to allow the trials.
Pentagon lawyers balked at Bush's proposal to limit the terrorism suspects' access to evidence.
"I'm not aware of any situation in the world where there is a system of jurisprudence that is recognized by civilized people where an individual can be tried and convicted without seeing the evidence against him," Brig. Gen. James Walker, U.S. Marine Corps staff judge advocate told a Congressional hearing.
Bush was forced to find a new way to try foreigners suspected of terrorism after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the tribunal system his administration created. Most of the suspects were captured in Afghanistan and held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bush also acknowledged the secret CIA prison program for the first time, but sought to turn that and the Supreme Court setback to political advantage. In all, about 100 detainees had been held in the program, which provoked outrage in Europe.
Republicans see terrorism and national security as a winning agenda for them in Nov. 7 elections that will determine if the party maintains control of Congress. Democrats want to make the vote a referendum on the Iraq war.
"We need to do more than frighten the American people," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He accused the Bush administration of using "fear, fear, fear and more fear as a national-security policy."
Many congressional Democrats, and even a few Republicans, are uncomfortable with the tough rules Bush wants for the military trials. But with the fate of suspects like Mohammed at stake, the White House hopes to make it politically harder to oppose Bush.
The new plan resembles the current U.S. system of military courts-martial, where trials of U.S. service members are presided over by a military judge, and jurors come from the armed forces.
But hearsay evidence would be allowed at the judge's discretion and classified evidence -- never shared with the accused -- would be allowed in the trials in some situations.
Rights groups said Bush's proposal would lack fairness and credibility. "It's an attempt to justify an unjust and even kangaroo court system," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizner.
Bush's admission about the CIA prisons brought a new round of condemnation from Europe, where lawmakers demanded that their governments reveal the locations of the jails.
EU member Poland and candidate country Romania, accused of hosting secret CIA detention centers by an investigator for Europe's chief human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, issued fresh denials.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday it planned to visit the 14 terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay next week.
"They are being in-processed like any other detainee who arrives at Guantanamo. They've undergone a physical and dental examination and will be issued the normal items provided to all detainees," said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the prison.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Atlanta, David Morgan and Will Dunham in Washington)
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