Obama moves to overhaul 'war on terror' practices
In three executive orders signed Thursday, he departs sharply from Bush's policies on Guantanamo, CIA prisons, and harsh interrogation tactics.
President Obama is taking swift and dramatic action to shift the direction of Americaâ€™s efforts to fight terrorism, counter the threat from Al Qaeda, and safeguard the nation. On Thursday, on his second full day in the White House, Mr. Obama signed three executive orders and a memorandum that provide the broad outline of a major overhaul of US national security policy. The actions mark not only a sharp departure and rejection, but a rebuke, of policies that formed the backbone of President Bushâ€™s global war on terror.
Mr. Obamaâ€™s executive orders call for:
â€˘ Closing the terror prison camp at Guantanamo within a year.
â€˘ Closing â€śas expeditiously as possibleâ€ť all secret CIA prisons overseas.
â€˘ Banning the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics not authorized by the Army Field Manual.
â€˘ Requiring the International Red Cross be granted access to any individual detained by the US in any armed conflict.
â€˘ Requiring that all US detainees be treated in accord with at least the minimal protections of the Geneva Conventions.
â€śWe are not going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals,â€ť Obama said, shortly after signing the orders. â€śThe message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism,â€ť Obama said. â€śAnd 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.â€ť
National security experts who had been critics of the Bush administration are praising Obamaâ€™s fast action. But many are still cautiously awaiting the details and fine print of his changes. â€śWhat is extraordinarily significant here is the dramatic change in tone,â€ť says Aziz Huq, director of the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Mr. Huq says the Bush administration insisted it did not condone torture, but produced legal memos authorizing interrogation techniques that amounted to torture. â€śYou have gone from an administration that was saying one thing and doing another, to an administration that is saying quite clearly that we mean to hew to the rule of law and we mean it seriously,â€ť Huq says. â€śThat is a dramatic and important change,â€ť he says. â€śWhat remains to be seen is how that position works itself out in the details.â€ť
In addition to the three executive orders on Thursday, Obama signed a memo calling for a review of the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, a Qatar national, who has been held without charge in a South Carolina naval brig as an enemy combatant for five years. The government says he was a sleeper agent sent by Al Qaeda to engage in a second wave of attacks after 9/11.
The US Supreme Court has agreed to examine the legality of his ongoing detention. The case is expected to be set for oral argument in March or April and be decided by late June. It marks the most significant Supreme Court test yet of the Bush administrationâ€™s controversial legal approach to the war on terror.
At issue in the case is whether the president has the power to designate a legal US resident, which Mr. al-Marri was at the time of his apprehension, as an enemy combatant and order that person held indefinitely in military detention. The Obama administration has asked the high court for a 30-day extension to file its brief, and the presidentâ€™s memo directs US officials to â€śundertake a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al-Marriâ€™s continued detention.â€ť The memo says the officials should â€śidentify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions.â€ť
Al-Marriâ€™s lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he is hopeful the Obama administration will reject the legal position of the Bush administration. He says the new administration should release his client and allow him to return home to his family in Qatar.
â€śAny objective and clear-minded review will show that this detention is illegal,â€ť Mr. Hafetz says. â€śWe fully expect that if the Obama administration goes forward [with the case], Al-Marriâ€™s detention will be struck down by the Supreme Court.â€ť
In statements from human rights experts, Obama won high praise for his fast action on Guantanamo and banning torture.
Jennifer Kaskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, called it â€śa major step toward restoring Americaâ€™s moral authority around the world.â€ť
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, praised Obama for â€śmoving quickly to restore the United Statesâ€™ role as a positive force for human rights in the world.â€ť He added, â€śWith a stroke of a pen, President Obama initiated this nationâ€™s return to the rule of law.â€ť
Not all analysts were pleased with Obamaâ€™s moves.
House Republican Leader John Boehner warned that the new policies and closing Guantanamo might place the country in peril. â€śThe Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with the worst of the worst â€“ terrorists and killers bent on murdering Americans and other friends of freedom around the world,â€ť he said in a statement. â€śIf it is closed, where will they go?â€ť
Mr. Boehner added, â€śRepublicans want to work with our president to address these national security concerns, but we should not gamble with the safety and security of the American people and our troops on the battlefield.â€ť