Week One

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Monday, January 26, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S executive orders in his first week of office went beyond setting the right tone. From access to government records to family planning to interrogation methods, Mr. Obama rewrote policy in substantive, positive ways. He also -- this is not a criticism -- put off many difficult decisions and left room for reappraisal in key areas, such as how to handle dangerous detainees. He rightly avoided hasty solutions to complex problems.

Mr. Obama adopted a tough ethics policy under which officials who leave his administration will be barred for the duration of his presidency -- and, yes, that could include two terms -- from lobbying the executive branch. The ban is sweeping in time and scope: Current revolving-door rules cover just one year and prohibit officials from lobbying only the department in which they served. The strict rule may discourage some talented people from entering government, but it also will help dispel the notion, and to some extent the reality, that people enter government only to cash in later.

The new rules also bar registered lobbyists from working in the administration on areas in which they have lobbied. Mr. Obama is taking grief for his decision to grant a waiver from that rule to his nominee for deputy defense secretary, William J. Lynn III, who was the top lobbyist for military contractor Raytheon Corp. Given Raytheon's broad reach, it's fair to question how Mr. Lynn will recuse himself from issues of interest to the company. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that he pressed for an exception "because I felt that he could play the role of the deputy in a better manner than anybody else that I saw." The president's rule ensures that any conflicts will be carefully watched, and his flexibility despite certain criticism signals an ability to make hard but reasonable calls.

Mr. Obama also took a jackhammer to the legal structure that for eight years has been used to undermine the international reputation of the United States in the fight against terrorism. In executive orders issued on Jan. 22, Mr. Obama nullified Justice Department opinions that provided legal cover for interrogation techniques such as simulated drowning. He decreed that all detainees -- legal or illegal combatants -- are protected by Geneva Conventions. He revoked the Central Intelligence Agency's authority to detain prisoners for more than brief interrogation periods and barred the agency from operating secret prisons abroad. And he ordered that all U.S. interrogators abide by the Army Field Manual, which identifies interrogation techniques that comport with international and domestic strictures against abuse.

Yet Mr. Obama's orders also contain measures of prudence. He called for a task force to determine whether those Field Manual techniques provide nonmilitary intelligence agencies with "an appropriate means of acquiring the intelligence necessary to protect the Nation." The task force will "recommend any additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies," if warranted. If Mr. Obama decides that additional methods are justified, he must ensure that they strictly adhere to international and domestic norms for humane treatment, make those changes public, as far as possible, and guarantee congressional overseers the opportunity to study the changes.

Mr. Obama's actions also raise rather than answer questions about the transfer and detention of current and future terror suspects. How will the government handle those detained at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan? How and where would it process suspects turned over by third countries or captured by the United States abroad? What if, as seems likely, some detainees can neither be safely released nor successfully tried in federal or military court? These are nettlesome questions that Mr. Obama is right to take slowly.

The need for full information highlights the value of an action Mr. Obama has yet to take: appointment of a bipartisan committee to study the Bush administration's actions in the war on terrorism. It could evaluate the former administration's claims that "enhanced interrogation techniques" saved American lives. It also could study how the Bush administration got so disastrously off-track -- and how future administrations could avoid a repetition, while still protecting Americans' safety.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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