President Obama on Thursday rolled back classified Bush administration interrogation techniques, but even as he was signing the order, his pick to be director of national intelligence told Congress that agencies still need secret tactics.
Mr. Obama’s order made the widely available Army Field Manual the standard for all interrogation techniques, erasing Bush-era rules that allowed some interrogators to go beyond what the military was generally allowed to do.
But Dennis Blair, testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee, said the guidelines for some techniques must be kept secret so enemies can’t train to withstand them.
“There will be some sort of document that’s widely available in an unclassified form. … The specific techniques that can provide training value to adversaries we will handle much more carefully,” the retired admiral said.
Mr. Obama on Thursday also signed orders closing the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year. But, as with the interrogation order, the president left many of the thorniest questions to be answered later. Lawmakers in Congress lined up to try to prevent suspected terrorists from being brought to prisons in their own districts.
In a third directive, Mr. Obama ordered so-called “black sites” - secret prisons run by the CIA outside the U.S., where detainees were reportedly tortured - to be closed.
“The orders that I signed today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions, in defense of liberty, will be just as our cause and that we the people will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security,” Mr. Obama said later in the day, during remarks at the State Department.
Mr. Obama’s directives wipe away all of the Bush Justice Department’s contentious rulings on interrogations.
The president asked for a task force led by the attorney general to report back with recommendations on both how to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and on interrogations of high-value detainees.
The panel will deliver an opinion in 180 days on what to do with Guantanamo detainees who are too dangerous to release but can’t be tried in a court, either because the evidence against them is classified or was obtained in such a way that it might be inadmissible in court.
That conundrum was one of the main drivers that prompted the Bush administration to create the Guantanamo facility in the first place.
“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.
“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.
The panel also will report back on whether the CIA should 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 associated with the Army Field Manual are not applicable to the intelligence scenario,” the senior official said. “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 official said that doesn’t mean the Obama administration is creating “a secret annex that allows us to bring the enhanced interrogation techniques back.”
In his testimony, Mr. Blair said, “My understanding is we want to revise the Army Field Manual and make it the manual that goes for both military and intelligence interrogation.”
He said that he didn’t know whether the revised manual would include techniques not in the current Army Field Manual but that distribution of the new manual would “be limited to those who need it, both within the armed forces and the intelligence service.”
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and the panel’s vice chairman, said putting some techniques in secret guidance sounded similar to the current setup, which Mr. Obama said he is eliminating.
“They are leaving the option open to do something similar to what the Bush administration did,” Mr. Bond said in an interview.
Mr. Blair, a retired admiral, echoed his Bush administration predecessors somewhat on waterboarding, the most controversial procedure used against terrorism suspects, by refusing to say that the procedure is torture.
However, he did say that the intelligence community would not engage in the practice of pouring water onto a person’s face as they are bound to a board, stimulating the gag reflex and simulating the feeling of drowning.
Mr. Blair’s predecessor as “intelligence czar,” Michael McConnell, 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.
Benjamin Wittes, a scholar on the legal issues surrounding the war on terrorism, said the talk of expanding the Army Field Manual to give the CIA more latitude did not soften the fact that the order constitutes “a significant change in policy.”
“It’s only giving a very little back to say, ‘We’ll study the issue of whether you get to use any of your own interrogation techniques,’” he said, calling it “a real repudiation of the prior administration’s policies and those of us who have argued, as I have, that some measure of flexibility for the CIA is not inappropriate.”
The order on Guantanamo, however is “less consequential than it appears,” he said. “It doesn’t really make any policy judgments.”
In a nod to the opaque Guantanamo order, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he was “committed to working with the new commander in chief to ensure that the symbolism of the executive order directing the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not lead to action that imperils the American people, either through the release of terrorists on American soil or into the wider world.”
Congressional Democrats applauded the president’s decisions, saying they would help the U.S. reclaim moral high ground they said was lost with revelations about detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantanamo, and elsewhere.
But Republicans said that closing Guantanamo could mean 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 chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, who said a facility in his state was equipped to house them. “Only one wing of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort 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.
House Republicans introduced a bill Thursday to prohibit any Guantanamo detainees from being moved to the U.S.