WASHINGTON – Moving to claim what he described as “the moral high ground,” President Barack Obama took a series of steps Thursday to dismantle the most widely condemned components of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Obama issued executive orders to shutter the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp within a year, close the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons and end the agency’s use of interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture.
In a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, Obama described the orders as more than the fulfillment of a campaign commitment. He said they reflected “an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers – that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it’s easy but also when it’s hard.”
That the orders were issued on Obama’s second full day in office underscored the administration’s intent to send a signal to overseas allies. But Obama also made sure to include an admonition to adversaries, vowing no let-up against al-Qaida. “We intend to win this fight,” he said. “We’re going to win it on our own terms.”
Just hours after the documents were signed, CIA Director Michael Hayden issued a statement to the agency’s work force, instructing officers to comply “without exception, carve-out or loophole.”
While the orders left the impression of swift action, many of their most important provisions will take time to implement. The Obama administration will give itself a year to close Guantanamo Bay – a timeline that will allow the government to determine which detainees should be tried, which should be transferred to other countries and what to do with future suspected terrorists captured by the United States.
There are 245 detainees in the prison. The question of what to do with them balances the desire to close a facility widely seen as damaging to international U.S. standing with the risks of releasing prisoners who many believe still pose a serious threat.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the fundamental challenge “is figuring out how do we close Guantanamo and at the same time safeguard the security of the American people.”
Some Republicans accused the White House of lacking sufficient concern for potential risks.
“This is an executive order that places hope ahead of reality – it sets an objective without a plan to get there,” Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
The Guantanamo executive order establishes a review procedure to allow officials to examine the cases of all detainees. It acknowledges that there might be detainees considered too dangerous to be released but who also can’t be prosecuted in federal or military courts. The order is vague about how the administration will handle those cases.
The Obama administration could continue to hold detainees accused of being enemy combatants under the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Otherwise officials would either have to transfer the prisoners to other countries or seek a new law allowing some sort of detention without trial – a step the administration has shown little willingness to take.
A second order issued by Obama banned the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. For the first time, CIA interrogators would be required to abide by a U.S. Army field manual that limits them to 19 approved techniques and eschews any sort of harsh questioning practices.
The approved techniques rely on various psychological approaches and prohibit interrogators from making physical contact with suspects or using force.
But Obama appeared to leave an opening for the CIA to have expanded authorities again. The order calls for the creation of a task force, headed by the U.S. attorney general, to study whether the Army field manual is adequate and to recommend “additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies.”
Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Obama’s nominee to serve as the next director of national intelligence, testified Thursday that the government would withhold specifics from any new interrogation document for fear that “we not turn our manual into a training manual for our adversaries.”
Human-rights groups praised the direction being taken by Obama but expressed concern that keeping aspects of interrogation policy secret would continue to raise suspicions.
“We’ve been pretty clear that classifying this, after all we’ve been through, is a big mistake,” said David Danzig, a spokesman for Human Rights First, a group that organized retired U.S. military officers to lobby presidential candidates to overhaul interrogation policy. “It suggests that there are secret techniques that can be abusive that will be used.”
In a separate order, Obama instructed the CIA to close its constellation of secret prisons overseas, facilities that previously held some of the most notorious detainees in U.S. custody – including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The new Obama orders did not ban the CIA practice of rendition, in which prisoners are transferred by the CIA from one country to another.
Those transfers can continue, according to the orders, as long as prisoners are not taken to other nations “to face torture” or as part of a CIA effort to circumvent international laws on detainee treatment.