By Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 23, 2009
President Obama took dramatic steps yesterday to reverse Bush administration policies on the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists, ordering the closure of the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and banning the use of controversial CIA interrogation techniques. But he left open the question of how his administration will deal with any detainees it concludes are too dangerous to be released.
Flanked by 16 retired generals and admirals, Obama signed executive orders fulfilling his pledge to end what he has called torture and to abolish a facility that became a lightning rod for international criticism. His action drew praise from human rights groups as well as politicians and statesmen around the globe.
The executive orders left maneuvering room on some Bush policies that have long drawn disapproval, however. Senior administration officials indicated that the military commissions established by the previous administration to try prisoners at Guantanamo Bay -- whose operations were suspended by Obama on Wednesday -- might be preserved in some form for those detainees determined to be "unreleasable" and "untriable."
The orders did not prohibit renditions, in which the CIA has secretly transferred prisoners captured in one country to another without trial. Although they mandated that the CIA adhere to interrogation guidelines used by the military, officials said that a separate "protocol" may still be established to govern intelligence agency interrogation practices.
Those issues and others are to be reviewed by a Cabinet-level task force that will study how to deal with the most vexing legacies of the Bush administration's detention program, Obama said. The task force, coordinated by the attorney general, will review the cases of all 245 remaining Guantanamo Bay prisoners and determine which can be released and which can be tried in U.S. civilian or military courts.
Some prisoners, however, may be determined to be dangerous but not prosecutable because the evidence against them is scanty or tainted by allegations of abuse or torture. The fate of that group is to be decided by the task force.
The panel will also make recommendations on how future high-level terrorism suspects should be handled.
Obama insisted that the overarching message of his first national security orders was unequivocal: "The United States will not torture."
"The orders that I signed today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be as just as our cause," he said at a news conference, "and we, the people, will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security."
The four executive orders signed by Obama in the White House's Oval Office had been largely telegraphed in advance and were in keeping with major campaign promises. The one closing Guantanamo Bay called for moving out all prisoners "no later than one year from now," after the case-by-case review.
The reviews are to be carried out on a rolling basis, with action taken on individuals as soon as they are reviewed. One of the problems the new administration has encountered is the absence, for a large number of prisoners, of centralized, comprehensive files containing all U.S. government information about their individual cases. The task force's first order of business is to assemble information about each prisoner from throughout the government.
Officials declined to speculate on the numbers of prisoners who might end up in any of the three categories of "releasable," "triable" or "non-triable." Options for dealing with those determined to be in the third category, officials said, might include special national security courts or even revised military commissions.
"There will be a process" that will comply with U.S. and international laws while "not compromising national security," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters, while insisting on anonymity, about the administration's policy discussions.
Obama's executive order on CIA interrogations mandated a permanent halt to the agency's use of secret prisons as well as coercive measures such as waterboarding. The order essentially puts the CIA out of the incarceration business and imposes strict limits on how the agency handles suspected terrorists who may be held temporarily for questioning.
The CIA -- together with all other government agencies -- would have to rely on the same 16 interrogation techniques approved for military interrogators in a guidebook known as the Army Field Manual.
The administration left open the possibility that the CIA could be given more leeway in the future, not on what the Bush administration called "enhanced interrogation techniques," but on other interrogation-related guidelines. A "separate protocol" would take into account the differences between battlefield interrogations and those aimed at eliciting intelligence about terrorist groups and their plans, the senior administration official said. But he added that the same ban on coercive measures would apply.
"We're not talking about different techniques," the official said, adding that there will be no "secret annex" to the orders.
CIA renditions would continue to be permitted during the task force review, an official said. Renditions, he said, could be both useful and justifiable in some cases, but "there will not be renditions to any country that engages in torture."
The Bush administration and the CIA have denied that they knowingly caused any detainees to be tortured, either while in U.S. custody or in foreign prisons. The outgoing CIA director, Michael V. Hayden, has said that the coercive techniques were used in fewer than 100 cases, and that waterboarding was used only on three high-level al-Qaeda operatives, all of them before 2004. In 2006, Hayden presided over the transfer of all prisoners held secretly by the CIA at that time to Guantanamo Bay.
In an internal message yesterday to CIA employees, Hayden said the agency would carry out the new administration's policies "without exception, carve-out or loophole."
In a separate order, Obama directed the government to review the status of a detainee, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who is held in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. The directive will ensure the same kind of legal and factual review that is being undertaken for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the White House said.
Backing Obama as he signed the orders was a phalanx of 16 retired flag officers, part of a larger group of military and political leaders who pressured the new administration, publicly and privately, to set a new course on interrogations.
One of the officers, retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, said taking the moral high ground on interrogation would help protect U.S. troops in the future. He said the use of torture was "for the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough" and called it a "recruiting tool for terrorists."
Some Republicans worried that the new president had rushed into policy changes that could damage national security.
"This is an executive order that places hope ahead of reality -- it sets an objective without a plan to get there," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee."
Staff writers Robert Barnes, Walter Pincus, Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.