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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
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.

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.

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.

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 administration’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 president’s memo directs US officials to “undertake a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al-Marri’s continued detention.” The memo says the officials should “identify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions.”

Al-Marri’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.

“Any objective and clear-minded review will show that this detention is illegal,” Mr. Hafetz says. “We fully expect that if the Obama administration goes forward [with the case], Al-Marri’s detention will be struck down by the Supreme Court.”

In statements from human rights experts, Obama won high praise for his fast action on Guantanamo and banning torture.

“America’s greatest strengths – our core values – are once again clear to the world,” said Douglas Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture.

Jennifer Kaskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, called it “a major step toward restoring America’s moral authority around the world.”

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, praised Obama for “moving quickly to restore the United States’ role as a positive force for human rights in the world.” He added, “With a stroke of a pen, President Obama initiated this nation’s return to the rule of law.”

Not all analysts were pleased with Obama’s moves.

House Republican Leader John Boehner warned that the new policies and closing Guantanamo might place the country in peril. “The Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with the worst of the worst – terrorists and killers bent on murdering Americans and other friends of freedom around the world,” he said in a statement. “If it is closed, where will they go?”

Mr. Boehner added, “Republicans 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.”

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