President Obama on Thursday ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba within a year and ordered that all interrogations of suspected terrorists will have to abide by the Army field manual, removing the Bush administration’s approval of “enhanced” interrogation techniques, which some believed to be torture.
The new president, during his second full day in office, also ordered the shuttering of so-called black sites, where the CIA and foreign security services harshly interrogated terrorist suspects.
Mr. Obama signed three executive orders in the Oval Office a few minutes after 11 a.m., in front of news photographers and reporters, with retired military generals standing behind him.
“The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals,” Mr. Obama said.
“We intend to win this fight,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to win it on our terms.”
But his request for a panel headed by the Attorney General to report back with recommendations on future practices leaves unanswered the thorniest questions related to both detention of suspected terrorists and interrogations of high-value detainees.
The panel will deliver an opinion in 180 days on what should be done with Guantanamo detainees that are too dangerous to release but also can’t be tried in a court either because the evidence against them is classified or was obtained by extra-judicial means.
“There’s one category that we can transfer. There’s one category that we can try. The third category can’t be transferred, can’t be tried,” said a senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition that his name not be used, saying he could speak more freely that way.
“But we’ve got to figure out a way consistent with our values and the rule of law, but also our national safety, to deal with these people,” the official said.
This particular conundrum was one of the main drivers that prompted the Bush administration to create the Guantanamo facility.
The panel will also report back on whether the CIA should in fact be free of some restrictions in the Army Field Manual.
“There may be merit in the argument that some of the standards and the guidance assoc with the Army Field Manual are not applicable to the intelligence scenario. We’re not talking about different techniques. We’re talking about guidance, how you go about doing something as opposed to how you question somebody,” the senior White House official said.
“So this is not a secret annex that allows us to bring the enhanced interrogation techniques back.”
And the president is also seeking an opinion from the panel on rendition, the practice of extraditing detainees to foreign countries, which was started before President Reagan but stepped up significantly under President Bush.
“There are some renditions that are in fact justifiable and defensible, and there are others that have been mistakes and are not justifiable,” the senior White House official said.
While that review is ongoing, a separate Obama official said, renditions will continue.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs later accidentally identified the senior official as “Greg.”
While many congressional Democrats applauded the president’s decisions, the orders ran into immediate criticism from Republicans, who cited the danger of transferring known and suspected terrorists to U.S. or military prisons.
“Some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world are at Gitmo,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Only one wing of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth meets maximum security requirements, and it’s far too small for even a handful of detainees.
“Detainees require their own hospital and medical care, religious spaces, courtrooms, and even recreation facilities. Plus, there’s no support facilities for the several thousand guards needed and their families, said Mr. Roberts, a former Marine who visited the facility in 2005.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, introduced a bill that would prohibit the transfer of terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Camp Pendleton San Diego.
“Mr. Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo severely undermines our nation’s detention operations,” Mr. Hunter said.
Three Republican senators introduced a bill earlier this week that would require the president to give 90 days’ notice before closing Guantanamo, and would require a study of the cost and feasibility of re-locating detainees from Gitmo.
And House Republicans introduced a bill that would prohibit the release or transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S.
Sen. John D. Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia Democrat and outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, applauded the president’s decision.
There has been broad support among Senate Intelligence Committee members for some time that the fight against terrorist threats around the globe can only be successful over the long haul if we transition out of Guantanamo, end enhanced interrogation programs, and reform DIR (detention, interrogation and rendition) policies and practices - and it is extremely gratifying that President Obama has initiated these essential changes right away, Mr. Rockefeller said.
The order on Guantanamo will begin an immediate review, led by the Attorney General, of all 245 detainees at the detention center, to determine if they should be prosecuted, transferred to countries of origin, or released.
“We will be setting up a process whereby this will be taking place,” Mr. Obama said as he prepared to sign the order.
The Secretaries of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, along with the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will take part in the review.
Mr. Obama, as he signed the order on interrogation techniques, said that “any interrogations taking place are going to have to abide by the Army field manual.”
He said the 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.”
He called this “an understanding that dates back to our founding fathers, that we are willing to observe court standards of conduct, not only when it’s easy but also when it’s hard.”
“We are not, as I said in the inauguration, going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said.
“It is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world.”
Human rights groups and even former U.S. officials have charged that detainees at Guantanamo were subjected to torture and objected to a range of other practices under the Bush administration that were illegal under international law and harmful to the U.S. reputation abroad, particularly in the Muslim world.
Mr. Obama also directed the Justice Department to review the case of Ali al-Marri, a Qatar native, to decide whether he has the right to sue the government for his freedom. The president announced that he was creating a task force that would recommend within 30 days new policies on handling terrorist suspects in the future.
One executive order will shutter “all permanent detention facilities overseas,” a reference to the so-called black sites. There are at least eight such prisons, according to published reports. The Bush administration never revealed the number or location of the facilities, although several were said to be in Eastern Europe.
Congressional committees were informally briefed about the executive orders on Wednesday. Administration officials discussed them with senior Republican legislators late Wednesday and were briefing others Thursday opposed to changing current U.S. policies involving terrorist suspects, a former Justice Department official familiar with the drafts said. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The official said “there are serious concerns as to where the detainees will be held” and that sending them “into the U.S. federal court system may lead to some of them being released” because the military commissions have different guidelines regarding evidence.
A Pentagon official said it “would be to speculative to say what will happen with each detainee once the facility is closed” but “clearly there are some dangerous detainees at Guantanamo and they will continue to fight us. It’s still way to soon to make judgment calls as to what facilities they will be held in the U.S. or abroad.” The official also asked not to be named.
Meanwhile, the fallout from Guantanamo Bay is stalling the appointment of Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, who said in his confirmation hearing last week that “waterboarding is torture” and now faces questions about whether he will prosecute U.S. intelligence agents who used that interrogation method.
Awaiting an answer, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed for at least a week a committee confirmation vote on Mr. Holder that was originally scheduled for Wednesday.
The outgoing director of national intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, also warned publicly last week that the CIA would be hamstrung if it abided only by the Army Field Manual in conducting interrogations. “Does the [intelligence] community need interrogation techniques beyond what’s in the Army Field Manual? In my opinion we do,” he told reporters at a farewell press conference.
S.A. Miller contributed to this report.