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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.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2009

President Obama signs a series of executive orders, including one beginning the process of closing the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Thursday in the Oval Office.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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President Obama is taking swift and dramatic action to shift the direction of America’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 Bush’s global war on terror.

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Mr. Obama’s executive orders call for:

• Closing the terror prison camp at Guantanamo within a year.

• Closing “as expeditiously as possible” all secret CIA prisons overseas.

• Banning the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics not authorized by the Army Field Manual.

• Requiring the International Red Cross be granted access to any individual detained by the US in any armed conflict.

• Requiring that all US detainees be treated in accord with at least the minimal protections of the Geneva Conventions.

“We are not going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals,” Obama said, shortly after signing the orders. “The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism,” Obama said. “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.”

National security experts who had been critics of the Bush administration are praising Obama’s fast action. But many are still cautiously awaiting the details and fine print of his changes. “What is extraordinarily significant here is the dramatic change in tone,” 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. “You 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,” Huq says. “That is a dramatic and important change,” he says. “What remains to be seen is how that position works itself out in the details.”

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.