By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009
President Obama moved swiftly yesterday to begin rolling back eight years of his predecessor's policies, ordering tough new ethics rules and preparing to issue an order closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been at the center of the debate over the treatment of U.S. prisoners in the battle against terrorism.
Acting to address several promises he made during his campaign, Obama met with top generals about speeding the withdrawal from Iraq and gathered his senior economic advisers as he continued to push for a massive spending bill to create jobs.
He also signed a series of executive orders and directives intended to slow the revolving door between government service and lobbying, and ordered his administration to share information more freely with the public.
Today, he will issue another order calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year, an immediate case-by-case review of the 245 detainees remaining there, and the application of new rules governing the treatment and interrogation of prisoners, including compliance with international treaties that the Bush administration deemed inapplicable to suspects in terrorism cases.
Just hours after his inauguration Tuesday, Obama ordered the suspension of all judicial proceedings at Guantanamo Bay under the auspices of the Bush administration's military commissions system. What is to be done with the prisoners will be part of the review, sources said. Listed options include repatriation to their home nations or a willing third country, civil trials in this country, or a special civil or military system. Prisoners are to be released or transferred on a rolling basis as soon as individual cases are reviewed and determinations made as to whether the detainees can and should be prosecuted, and where.
White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, who has spent the past several weeks drafting the orders, and discussed them with senior Democratic lawmakers in recent days, briefed House Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday. Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said Craig told members of Congress to expect "several" executive orders on Guantanamo Bay, including closure of the prison, but did not provide specific language.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement that "there are important questions that must be answered before the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay can be closed. The key question is where do you put these terrorists?"
Sources familiar with the briefings said Obama also will sign two executive orders altering CIA detention and interrogation rules, limiting interrogation standards in all U.S. facilities worldwide to those outlined in the Army Field Manual, and prohibiting the agency from secretly holding terrorist detainees in third-country prisons.
The actions are dramatic evidence that Obama is ready to use his authority and political capital to turn back some of the most controversial practices of George W. Bush's administration. They also suggest that he believes he needs to push quickly for broad changes.
"What a moment we're in. What an opportunity we have to change this country," Obama said as he announced the new lobbying and disclosure rules during a meeting with his senior staff yesterday.
In a frenetic first full day in office, Obama was everywhere: alone in the Oval Office; in the front pew at an inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral; swearing in his staff at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building; and, for the first time, meeting with his generals in the White House Situation Room.
Out of an abundance of caution, Obama also welcomed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to the White House to re-administer the oath of office after the two men fumbled some of the wording during Tuesday's inaugural proceedings.
The new president's day started with a quiet visit to the Oval Office. After a night of dancing at 10 inaugural balls, he arrived at 8:35 a.m., sitting alone for 10 minutes in one of the world's most famous rooms, aides said.
He read a note that Bush had left for him in a desk drawer, a tradition that dates back several presidents. The note was in an envelope marked "To: #44, From: #43," according to a statement from Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who did not disclose its contents.
Later in the morning, Obama attended the prayer service. But the serenity of the cathedral quickly gave way to the grinding reality of Obama's new responsibilities, as he placed calls to Middle East leaders, plunging into an arena about which he had remained silent during the 77-day transition period.
Sitting behind an almost bare desk in the Oval Office, Obama called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Obama pledged "active engagement" for a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, aides said.
"In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasized his determination to work to help consolidate the cease-fire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from re-arming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza," Gibbs said in a statement.
Today, Obama and Vice President Biden will meet at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was confirmed 94 to 2 by the Senate yesterday. Obama plans to announce the selection of former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as Middle East envoy, and former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke as envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan "and related matters," sources close to the administration said.
Mitchell, who is expected to travel to the region almost immediately upon taking the post, will be charged with restarting the Middle East peace process after the three weeks of violence between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Obama's hour-long discussion with senior national security, military and diplomatic advisers centered on the situation in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Obama listened to presentations by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
The president issued no orders, sources said, but instead outlined his goal of withdrawing all combat troops within 16 months, with a "residual force" of undetermined size remaining to protect U.S. diplomatic and other civilian officials, train Iraqi security forces, and conduct limited counterinsurgency operations. The sources said the war in Afghanistan was only briefly mentioned.
Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that U.S. officials had not conveyed any specific timetable to officials in his country. But he said the government is speeding up what he called "readiness of its forces" in case of an early withdrawal.
In a statement, Obama said he had "asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq." The statement also said Obama will visit the Pentagon to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and plans "a full review of the situation in Afghanistan."
The lobbying rules announced yesterday aim to end what has become a way of life in Washington, where those serving in an administration collect chits that are quickly cashed in once they depart government. Under the new rules, presidential appointees who leave office will not be allowed to lobby any federal agency as long as Obama remains in office.
"It's not about advantaging yourself. It's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It's not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization," Obama told Cabinet members and senior staff at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "Public service is, simply and absolutely, about advancing the interests of Americans."
The disclosure rules turn existing law on its head, requiring the government to err on the side of releasing information, not on the side of keeping documents and records secret.
"The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is over now," Obama declared.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Shailagh Murray and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and correspondent Anthony Shadid and special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.