President Obama's executive orders Thursday, closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center and banning torture and other harsh interrogation techniques, fulfill a campaign promise and impose major policy changes designed, in part, to improve America's image in the world.
It was a dramatic moment at the White House on Thursday morning. As cameras clicked in front of him, President Obama said he was ordering all U.S. government agencies to abide by the restrictive interrogation rules published by the U.S. Army two years ago, and that he was ordering the closure of any prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency and said "Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now."
The president also ordered an inspection of the Guantanamo facility to ensure it complies with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. laws. He also canceled a 2007 order by former-President Bush that opened the door to harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, and told all U.S. government agencies to ignore Bush administration decisions about what is allowed and what is not.
But President Obama did say he would listen to proposals for exceptions to the Army rules for some agencies and circumstances.
The president also suspended the military trials at Guantanamo, which human rights activists and many legal experts have branded as unfair.
The closing of the detention center and the end of those trials have long been sought by activists and many foreign governments. Some detainees were held in harsh conditions in the years immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Although conditions have improved and the government says harsh interrogation techniques are no longer used, Guantanamo has become a symbol of excess in the war on terrorism.
At Human Rights Watch in Washington, attorney Jennifer Daskal welcomed President Obama's moves. "With the stroke of a pen, the new Barack Obama administration has put the United States back on a humane and rule-of-law-respecting course, and rejected the abusive practices of the last 7 1/2 years. These orders will go an enormous way toward restoring America's image all around the world," he said.
President Obama said that was part of what he wanted to do. "The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, 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."
President Obama started a process on Thursday that his predecessor, George W. Bush, also said he wanted to do but never did.
The former president and his spokesmen cited the difficulties of placing detainees in other countries and concerns about what to do with detainees who the government says are too dangerous to release, but cannot be put on trial because the evidence against them is secret or tainted by alleged torture. They also said 61 of the approximately 500 detainees released from Guantanamo Bay have returned to terrorism.
At a news conference shortly after the executive orders were signed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Bush cabinet member asked to stay in his job -- said those difficult issues have not gone away.
GATES: "These are just issues that we will have to work through with the new administration. And some of the legal issues, which are really outside our purview, are the things that the Justice Department and the White House Counsel and so on will be working on."
PESSIN: "But is there some option out there that you identified before, but was rejected by the Bush Administration, particularly with regard to those that you can't release and can't put on trial?"
GATES: "I don't think so."
Secretary Gates indicated he does not know exactly how the issues will be settled, but he noted that since the November presidential election, a few countries have expressed interest in taking some of the detainees from Guantanamo -- reversing their previous refusals.
The Secretary, who is also a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he is not concerned about the new restrictions on interrogators. He indicated that whatever advantage the harsh techniques might provide is no longer needed.
"We know a lot more about al-Qaida now than we did in the early years of the administration, the early years after September 11, 2001. And personally, I believe that the need for measures that go outside the Army Field Manual is dramatically less than it was several years ago," he said.
Secretary Gates is a member of all three task forces President Obama formed on Thursday to decide how to close the Guantanamo detention center, what to do with its detainees and how to handle detainees and interrogations in the future. President Obama wants answers from his new task forces within six months.
The president's orders do not pre-judge the issues, but they do call on the officials involved to consider transferring some Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons and trying them in regular civilian U.S. courts. Some of the detainees have been held for more than seven years without charges or trials.