PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - The United States will do what it takes to protect itself but "we do not torture," President Bush said on Monday in response to criticism of reported secret CIA prisons and the handling of terrorism suspects.
Bush defended his administration's efforts to stop the U.S. Congress from imposing rules on the handling of terrorism suspects.
He did not confirm or deny the existence of CIA secret prisons that The Washington Post disclosed last week and would not address demands by the International Committee of the Red Cross to have access to the suspects reportedly held at them.
"We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice," Bush said at a news conference with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos. "We are gathering information about where the terrorists might be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do ... to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law."
Vice President Dick Cheney has been spearheading an effort on Capitol Hill to have the CIA exempt from an amendment by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
The exemption would cover the secret prisons that The Post said were located in several eastern European democracies and other countries where key al Qaeda captives are being kept.
"We do not torture and therefore we're working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it more possible to do our job," Bush said.
He said he was confident that when "people see the facts, that they'll recognize that we've got more work to do and that we've got to protect ourselves in a way that is lawful."
Bush spoke a day after Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told ABC's "This Week" that the Bush administration was making a "terrible mistake" in opposing the McCain amendment.
"Why in the world they're doing that, I don't know. You've got 90 senators out of 100 and that includes many Republicans opposed to it," Hagel said.
Hagel cited the Bush position as an example of the need for the president to widen his net of advisers as a way to regain his credibility with the American people amid sagging poll numbers over the Iraq war, soaring gasoline prices and other troubles.
The Senate voted 90-9 for the McCain amendment to prohibit the use of torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody, adding it to a $440 billion defense spending bill despite a White House veto threat.
The House of Representatives did not include the detainee rules in its version of the bill, and House and Senate negotiators are working out differences for a final bill.
The White House position is that international treaty obligations already on the books governs the treatment of suspects and that the United States is observing those rules.
"There's an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. And so you bet we'll aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law," Bush said.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen in Washington)
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