President Barack Obama has signed three executive orders that could significantly alter the way the U.S. government detains, interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists.
The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to be closed within one year. Obama also ordered a high-level review of options for handling detainees in the future. Finally, he prohibited the CIA from using interrogation techniques not allowed in the Army Field Manual.
Fulfilling Campaign Promises
Closing Guantanamo and outlawing torture were promises Obama made throughout his campaign, and he followed through on those commitments 48 hours after taking office, even while insisting he would still be tough on terrorists.
"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," Obama said.
The first executive order requires the closure of the Guantanamo facility within one year, but the new administration still doesn't know what to do with the roughly 245 detainees there, nor with suspected terrorists detained in the future. Those are questions that will be "reviewed."
A second order establishes a special task force co-chaired by the attorney general and the secretary of defense to come up with some options. Some House Republicans were quick to weigh in, introducing legislation Thursday that would bar Guantanamo detainees from coming into the United States.
The third order would put an end to the "coercive" interrogation techniques used by the CIA in recent years to get information from high-value detainees. One of those techniques, waterboarding, has already been categorized as torture by Obama's pick for attorney general, Eric Holder. That and other so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques will be off-limits, though Obama had some trouble making himself clear on this point.
A Possible Loophole
"Anybody detained by the Untied States, for now, is going to be ... any interrogations taking place are going to have to abide by the Army Field Manual," he said.
The key words here may be "for now."
Obama is apparently leaving the door open to some techniques not outlined in the Army manual. The interrogation order sets up a task force to evaluate whether the interrogation "practices and techniques" in the Army manual provide an "appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the nation."
If, for example, Osama bin Laden were captured, would the CIA be able to use only Army Field manual techniques on him? Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the president's pick to be director of national intelligence, addressed such questions at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.
"The choice of what we do in the future is a subject of another review for apprehension, detention, interrogation," Blair said.
This could be a loophole. A senior administration official said the task force will not suggest different interrogation techniques, though the executive order said it could. The apparent contradiction has not yet been explained.
On Capitol Hill, the new executive orders brought a mixed reaction. Democrats praised them but some Republicans were skeptical. Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the new guidelines, "put hope ahead of reality."
And the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Kit Bond of Missouri, speaking at Blair's confirmation hearing, criticized those who he says are content to go back to the old way of doing counterterrorism.
"They call for terrorists to be given the same constitutional protections as our citizens," he said. "They forget that our entire way of life is just a few minutes away from annihilation if terrorists were to succeed in obtaining a weapon of mass destruction or carry out an unrecoverable attack on our nation's infrastructure."
Outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden says the "enhanced" interrogation techniques that would now be prohibited have produced valuable intelligence and saved American lives. Blair says he is familiar with those arguments, but he is not convinced they should dictate interrogation policies from here on.
"I've heard stories. I've gotten phone calls from people who've been in the business," Blair said. "You've got to sort this out and look at it objectively and find out what the right answer is."
Blair said the "immediate tactical benefit" gained through harsh interrogations is one thing, but then he raised the larger question: What about the effect on America's reputation?