Issuing three executive orders on Thursday, US President Barack Obama (photo, from cnn.com) took his first strides on the world stage, demonstrating a clean break from the Bush administration.
He signed executive orders to effectively end the CIA’s secret interrogation program, to direct the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year and to set up a sweeping review of the treatment of terrorist suspects.
During a signing ceremony at the White House, president Obama reaffirmed his inauguration pledge that the US does not have “to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals”.
He also named two high-profile envoys in order to re-energize the search for peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
However, even as he reversed the most disputed counterterrorism policies of the Bush years, Mr Obama postponed for at least six months difficult decisions on the details.
Three executive orders
Mr Obama said he was issuing the order to close the facility in order to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism”.
Torture is formally banned by a second executive order which requires that the Army field manual be used as the guide for terrorism interrogations. That essentially ends the Bush administration’s CIA program of enhanced interrogation methods.
“We believe that the Army field manual reflects the best judgment of our military, that we can abide by a rule that says we don’t torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need”, said Mr Obama.
“This is me following through … on 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.”
The third executive order establishes an interagency task force to lead a systematic review of detention policies and procedures and a review of all individual cases.
The US president stated that the task force will also “provide me with information in terms of how we are able to deal [with] the disposition of some of the detainees that may be currently in Guantanamo that we cannot transfer to other countries, who could pose a serious danger to the United States”.
A memorandum has also been signed by Mr Obama, that requests a delay in the Supreme Court’s hearing of the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. Mr Al-Marri is a legal U.S. resident who contests his detention for more than five years as an enemy combatant. He has been held in a military brig without the government bringing any charges against him.
His case is scheduled to be heard by the high court in March or April.
Mr Al-Marri “is clearly a dangerous individual”, said Mr Obama. “We have asked for a delay in going before the Supreme Court to properly review the evidence against him.”
Lightning rod for critics
During president Bush’s second term, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay became a lightning rod for critics who charged his administration with torturing terrorist suspects. President George W. Bush and other senior officials repeatedly denied that the U.S. government had used torture to extract intelligence from terror suspects.
Arizona sen. John McCain, who was Mr Obama’s Republican rival during the general election, gave immediate backing to the new president’s decision to close the detention facility.
In a joint statement, sen. McCain and South Carolina GOP sen. Lindsey Graham said they supported Mr Obama’s decision to “reaffirm America’s adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and begin a process that will, we hope, lead to the resolution of all cases of Guantanamo detainees”.
Yet, a number of congressional Republicans split with their former party standard-bearer and criticized Mr Obama’s decision.
“We cannot risk going back to the politically correct national security policies that left us vulnerable in the lead-up to 9/11”, Michigan GOP Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a written statement. “Without a clear plan for the detention and interrogation of captured terrorists and combatants, we are unnecessarily risking the safety of our nation.”
The action was praised by rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. He called it “a first key step in restoring America’s image and credibility in the world”.
“The Bush administration never understood what the Guantanamo detention facility symbolized to the rest of the world”, said Mr Murtha in a written statement. “They saw it as simply a prison. … The problem with Guantanamo was never about its bricks and mortar. The problem with Guantanamo is that its very existence stains and defies the moral fiber of our great nation.”
Stay in the US
But questions remains regarding where the prison’s detainees will go next.
Asked about that issue Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said : “We have developed some options in terms of how many we think could be returned to other countries to take them. That diplomatic initiative has not started. That will await work in carrying out the executive order.”
“We have identified a number of possible prisons here in the United States” that could take the detainees he said. But he added “I’ve heard from members of Congress [representing] where all those prisons are located. Their enthusiasm is limited”.
Rep. Bill Young, R-Florida, said he has “quite a bit of anxiety” about the possibility of transferring detainees to U.S. facilities.
“Number one, they’re dangerous”, Mr Young said. “Secondly, once they become present in the United States, what is their legal status? What is their constitutional status? I worry about that, because I don’t want them to have the same constitutional rights that you and I have. They’re our enemy.”