President Obama on Thursday will order the closure of so-called black sites, where CIA and European security services have interrogated terrorist suspects, under executive orders dismantling much of the Bush admistration’s architecture for the war on terror, according to four individuals familiar with a draft executive order.
Mr. Obama will shutter “all permanant detention facilities overseas,” the draft said, according to the individuals who asked not to be named because the orders have not yet been signed. 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.
The individuals said there will be three executive orders. One will order the black sites closed and require all interrogations of detainees across the entire U.S. intelligence community to adhere to the U.S. Army Field Manual. The manual specifies a range of interrogation techniques that are not considered torture.
Another executive order will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within 12 months, in accordance with an Obama campaign pledge. The final order deals with overall detention policy.
The orders discuss the status of the estimated 250 detainees at Guantanamo and what to do with them and calls for a series of reviews on the status of the prisoners and the military commissions set up to try them. The review will look at transferring prisoners to military facilities in the United States.
Mr. Obama, in one of his first acts as president, on Wednesday suspended all the military commissions for 120 days. During his campaign and after his election, he promised that his administration would not practice torture. In his Inaugural address Tuesday, he said, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals … Those ideals still light the world and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Congressional committees were informally briefed about the executive orders on Wednesday. Administration officials discussed them with senior Republican legislators late Wednesday and will be briefing others 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.
White House officials declined to comment on the status of the orders.
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 judgement 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 new executive orders reverse much of former President Bush’s approach to the war on terrorism. Indeed, his outgoing director of national intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, warned publicly last week that the CIA would be hamstrung if it abided only by the Army Field Manual in conducting interogations. “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.
According to the manual, interrogators are encouraged to develop a rapport with a prisoner. The manual allows the interrogator to exploit the fears of a prisoner, but stop short of threatening him. Other allowed techniques include taking advantage of a prisoner’s strong feelings about an issue, showing false solidarity or attacking a prisoner’s pride.
Mr. Obama has hinted that the manual should dictate the treatment of detainees. On Jan. 11, Mr. Obama told ABC’s This Week: “If our top army commanders feel comfortable with interrogation techniques that are squarely within the boundaries of rule of law, our constitution and international standards, then those are things that we should be able to do.”
However, Republican leaders are already raising questions about changing procedures that many say have kept the United States from being attacked again after Sept. 11. House minority leader, John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in a statement, “The key question is where do you put these terrorists? Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield? Is it really necessary to suspend the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the avowed mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot, even though he has objected to the delay?”
Responding to the imminent moves to close Guantanamo, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, plans to introduce Thursday the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Safe Closure Act of 2009, his office said. It would require Mr. Obama to provide Congress 90 days notice before taking any action to close the facility or to transfer detainees to other prisons. It would also mandate a study on security, logistics and alternatives before taking action.
“We cannot afford to make snap decisions about detainee policy and the American people should be able to judge any policy changes for themselves,” Mr. Brownback said. “This legislation would require an open and comprehensive review of the factors related to moving the Guantanamo detainees.”
Jeffrey Addicott, director for the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said that the president is making a mistake by closing the facility. He said that military commissions are authorized by Congress and operate under the law of war.
However, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Consitutional Rights, applauded the decision. “We are proud that President Obama made addressing Guantnamo one of his first acts in office,” he said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.