washingtonpost.com
Return to the Moral High Ground

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 23, 2009 1:00 PM

All it took, at long last, was a few strokes of a pen.

Scribble scribble. "There we go," President Obama said yesterday as he ordered the closure, within a year, of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Scribble scribble. "There you go," he said, as he definitively banned torture.

And with that, the United States reclaimed its place among nations that respect the rule of law and human dignity.

"This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign," Obama said, "but I think an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard,"

Here are a some excerpts from Obama's executive order Ensuring Lawful Interrogation: "Executive Order 13440 of July 20, 2007, is revoked. All executive directives, orders, and regulations inconsistent with this order, including but not limited to those issued to or by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from September 11, 2001, to January 20, 2009, concerning detention or the interrogation of detained individuals, are revoked to the extent of their inconsistency with this order. . . .

"From this day forward, unless the Attorney General with appropriate consultation provides further guidance, officers, employees, and other agents of the United States Government . . . may not, in conducting interrogations, rely upon any interpretation of the law governing interrogation . . . issued by the Department of Justice between September 11, 2001, and January 20, 2009. . . .

"Consistent with the requirements of the Federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. 2340 2340A, section 1003 of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. 2000dd, the Convention Against Torture, Common Article 3, and other laws regulating the treatment and interrogation of individuals detained in any armed conflict, such persons shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and shall not be subjected to violence to life and person (including murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture), nor to outrages upon personal dignity (including humiliating and degrading treatment), whenever such individuals are in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States. . . .

"Effective immediately, an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict, shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in Army Field Manual 2 22.3 . Interrogation techniques, approaches, and treatments described in the Manual shall be implemented strictly in accord with the principles, processes, conditions, and limitations the Manual prescribes."

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the 'war on terror,' as President George W. Bush had defined it. . . .

"While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing U.S. laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office.

"Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration's lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001."

James Gordon Meek writes for the New York Daily News: "President Obama has rolled back Team Bush's torture policies with a bang, not a whimper, issuing four executive orders in a sweeping repudiation of his predecessor's 'war on terror.' . . .

"One of the war's most successful interrogators cheered Obama.

"'It's a significant step toward saving American lives,' said Air Force Reserve Maj. Matthew Alexander - the lead interrogator of terrorists who betrayed Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before his 2006 killing.

"'When I was in Iraq, the No. 1 reason foreign fighters said they were coming into the country to fight was Abu Ghraib,' said Alexander, author of 'How To Break A Terrorist.'"

There's still some work to be done, however.

Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama's orders struck a powerful new tone and represented an important first step toward rewriting American rules for dealing with terrorism suspects. But only his decision to halt for now the military trials under way at Guantánamo Bay seemed likely to have immediate practical significance, with other critical policy choices to be resolved by task forces set up within the administration.

"Among the questions that the White House did not resolve on Thursday were these: What should be done with terrorists who cannot be tried in American courts, either because evidence against them was obtained by torture or because intelligence is too sensitive to use in court? Should some interrogation methods remain secret to keep Al Qaeda from training to resist them? How can the United States make sure prisoners transferred to other countries will not be tortured?"

Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "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."

And Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times that Obama "appeared to leave an opening for the CIA" to once again go beyond the 19 approved techniques listed in the Army field manual. "The order calls for the creation of a special task force, headed by the U.S. attorney general, to study whether the Army field manual is adequate and to recommend 'additional or different guidance for other departments or agencies.'

"Administration officials emphasized that there was no intent to create a loophole.

"'This is not a secret annex that allows us to bring the enhanced interrogation techniques back,' said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing legal strategies. 'It's not.'

"But the language left the impression that the Obama team could later decide to adopt separate standards for the military and the CIA, and that any additional methods approved for the agency would remain classified.

"Retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the president's nominee to serve as the next director of national intelligence, testified Thursday that the government would withhold specifics from any new interrogation document for fear that 'we not turn our manual into a training manual for our adversaries.'"

It sounds to me like the Obama White House needs to state even more categorically that it will not under any circumstances approve interrogation techniques that violate the Geneva Conventions -- and it needs to do so on the record. A background briefing won't cut it -- even when a public schedule and multiple references by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to "Greg" in his press briefing makes it clear that the briefers were White House Counsel Greg Craig and Deputy White House Counsel Mary DeRosa.

That said, torture opponents are happy.

Frank Jordans writes for the Associated Press: "Former detainees, human-rights advocates and government officials around the world welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, saying Thursday it helped restore their faith in the United States."

Spencer Ackerman writes in the Washington Independent that "civil libertarians and ex-CIA officials involved in interrogations and detentions policies hailed the changes. . . .

"Linda Gustitus, president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said Obama 'has already changed the world with respect to America's use of torture.' Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies said the orders represented an 'extraordinary first step towards ending the illegalities and abuses of the last seven years.' Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, said the interrogations order 'makes meaningful the US commitment not to torture detainees' and that 'President Obama has rejected the abusive practices of the last seven-and-a-half years.' Caroline Fredrickson, Washington director of the ACLU, said Obama had given the U.S. 'a much-needed and significant break from the Bush administration policies that, with utter disregard for our Constitution, trampled our nation's values and ideals.'"

Ann Woolner writes in her Bloomberg opinion column: "In these orders, Obama declared an end to some of the darkest events of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration and began the long, difficult task of restoring American ideals of humanity.

"I am beginning to recognize my country again."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The executive orders that Obama signed yesterday concerning the detention of terrorism suspects are a beginning. Much more remains to be undone. . . .

"We don't know the full story of the secret offshore CIA prisons where terrorism suspects were held and interrogated. We don't know the extent of the 'rendition' program in which suspects were handed over to cooperative third countries for aggressive and reportedly abusive questioning. We don't know the full extent of the administration's warrantless domestic electronic surveillance."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "With executive orders signed Thursday, President Obama has begun the rehabilitation of this country's reputation when it comes to the treatment of suspected terrorists. But the orders contain ambiguities that demonstrate how hard it will be to unwind the tangle that President Bush created."

The pushback from Bush apologists started even before Obama signed the orders.

In a Washington Post op-ed yesterday, former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen made the outrageous and unsupported charge that banning Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques" would "effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11-style attack."

Wrote Thiessen: "Information gained using those techniques is responsible for stopping a number of planned attacks -- including plots to blow up the American consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; to fly airplanes into the towers of Canary Wharf in London; and to fly a hijacked airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles."

But as I've repeatedly noted, it's never been proven that any of these attacks were anything more than a fantasy, nor that they were averted due to CIA interrogation.

Thiessen was at it again today on the National Review Web site: "The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11. He has removed the tool that is singularly responsible for stopping al-Qaeda from flying planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Heathrow Airport, and London's Canary Warf, and blowing up apartment buildings in Chicago, among other plots. It's not even the end of inauguration week, and Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."

But Thiessen is making this stuff up, people. I'm guessing the new addition to his list -- the Chicago plot -- is the same one Bush mentioned in a "fact sheet" last month, and which as I debunked at the time. (It involved a 22-year-old American citizen who never had any weapons and was apparently goaded into threatening to bomb a shopping mall by an FBI informant.)

The White House and the Press Corps

Despite all of Obama's impressive nods to transparency, based on reports of the first briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday, it didn't look like a whole new era in the press room.

Gibbs seemed to see his job as deflecting questions rather than answering them. How Bushian.

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Gibbs dished quips and performed many familiar routines that won him raves from three former White House press secretaries I surveyed afterward. He avoided specifics in favor of firmly stated generalities. He stuck to the talking points. . . .

"Afterward, a colleague joked to me, 'About midway through, I thought I was going to fall asleep.' Too bad Obama has frozen the salaries of his top staffers. In earlier times, that kind of praise for a press secretary would have gotten him a raise."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "For the voice of an administration that came to office promising openness and transparency, he instead sounded, well, abundantly cautious."

A major topic at the press conference was the White House's decision not to allow press photographers at the do-over of Obama's swearing in on Wednesday. The reporters had a good point, and the Obama White House should not make a habit of substituting its own photographs for journalism.

But there was only one question about a much more serious potential precedent -- the background briefing I mentioned earlier. Cox News reporter Ken Herman asked Gibbs: "Why do the American people not have a right to know the names of the senior administration officials who briefed us this morning on the Guantanamo and related orders?"

Gibbs replied: "I hope that you all found the exercise that we did this morning helpful in further understanding the process by which the President had tasked his team to establish policies that he thinks enhances the security of the United States, and to do so in a way that helps inform you of the decisions that he's made and the decisions that he will make over the course of this, and do so in a way that's helpful to your job."

If Obama really wants transparency, he has to let his top aides speak to the press on the record. That's something worth haranguing Gibbs about.

Mimi Hall writes for USA Today: "Ari Fleischer, who was former president George W. Bush's first press secretary, said the efforts to control press access and coverage prove that Obama's promise of open government is thin.

"'He made similar lofty, good government reform promises throughout the campaign, and when he realized they weren't to his advantage, he reversed himself,' Fleischer said. 'So, too, it will be with transparency.'"

Fleischer has a lot of gall saying that -- but Gibbs hasn't proved him wrong.

Obama's Visit to the Press Room

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "President Obama made a surprise visit to the White House press corps Thursday night, but got agitated when he was faced with a substantive question.

"Asked how he could reconcile a strict ban on lobbyists in his administration with a Deputy Defense Secretary nominee who lobbied for Raytheon, Obama interrupted with a knowing smile on his face.

"'Ahh, see,' he said, 'I came down here to visit. See this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here.'

"Pressed further by the Politico reporter about his Pentagon nominee, William J. Lynn III, Obama turned more serious, putting his hand on the reporter's shoulder and staring him in the eye.

"'Alright, come on' he said, with obvious irritation in his voice. 'We will be having a press conference at which time you can feel free to [ask] questions. Right now, I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself to you guys - that's all I was trying to do.'"

FishbowlDC has the video.

Obama also said, somewhat contradictorily in my view, that he was "very proud" of Gibbs's first outing -- and that "[w]e will try to have a relationship that's respectful and where you guys feel like you're actually getting answers."

Bubble Watch

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "For more than two months, Mr. Obama has been waging a vigorous battle with his handlers to keep his BlackBerry, which like millions of other Americans he has relied upon for years to stay connected with friends and advisers. (And, of course, to get Chicago White Sox scores.)

"He won the fight, aides disclosed Thursday, but the privilege of becoming the nation's first e-mailing president comes with a specific set of rules."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "In Washington D.C., nothing will be harder to win a spot on than the list of e-mail addresses allowed to arrive, unimpeded, to President Obama's BlackBerry."

Bush Rollback Watch

Michael Hirsch writes for Newsweek: "After Inauguration Day, departed presidents usually become footnotes pretty quickly. What we are witnessing now is far more dramatic. It's closer to a liquidation, or a cauterization. George W. Bush is being turned into an unperson, like a character out of Orwell. It's been only two days, and there is scarcely a trace of not only his personal presence, but of his policies."

Next on the agenda? Laura Meckler writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Barack Obama will issue an order restoring U.S. funding for international family-planning groups involved with abortion. But he chose not to do so on Thursday, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade."

Rob Hotakainen writes for McClatchy Newspapers that California officials and environmentalists "are pressing for quick approval of a waiver that would let California and at least 13 other states impose tougher air-quality standards than are allowed under federal law. The Bush administration rejected the request a year ago, but that could be reversed by President Barack Obama and his environmental team."

Middle East Watch

Obama yesterday made it clear that the Middle East will be an urgent priority for his administration -- but those hoping for him to announce a substantially new approach were disappointed.

Mark Landler writes in the New York Times: "Signaling his determination to use diplomacy to address the world's toughest conflicts, President Obama went to the State Department on Thursday to install high-level emissaries to handle the Arab-Israeli issue and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Mr. Obama struck an empathetic tone toward Palestinians in Gaza, who he said were suffering greatly after the recently halted Israeli military campaign against Hamas. But he signaled no major shift in American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue."

Landler also warns of "some jockeying over whether the State Department or the White House will dominate foreign policy."

Critique From the Left

Robert Scheer writes in his syndicated opinion column: "My concern is with the nation's two most serious flashpoints (the economic bailout and the war in Afghanistan) and on both the early actions of the Obama team have been far from reassuring. Instead of signaling a sharp break from the failures of the Bush administration in these two areas, the early indication from Obama is more of the same.

"'Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some,' he said. But why then has he backed a bailout program that rewards the greediest of bankers while ignoring struggling homeowners? . . .

"The good news is that we have a big-brain president. The question is: Will he use it?"

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column that Obama is "going to have to make some big decisions very soon. In particular, he's going to have to decide how bold to be in his moves to sustain the financial system, where the outlook has deteriorated so drastically that a surprising number of economists, not all of them especially liberal, now argue that resolving the crisis will require the temporary nationalization of some major banks.

"So is Mr. Obama ready for that? Or were the platitudes in his Inaugural Address a sign that he'll wait for the conventional wisdom to catch up with events? If so, his administration will find itself dangerously behind the curve.

"And that's not a place that we want the new team to be. The economic crisis grows worse, and harder to resolve, with each passing week. If we don't get drastic action soon, we may find ourselves stuck in the muddle for a very long time."

Critique From the Right

So this is what Obama gets in return for breaking bread with Washington Post opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer, among other right-wing pundits.

Obama's inauguration speech was mediocre, Krauthammer writes this morning -- but intentionally so.

Krauthammer also makes the startling claim that "Obama's unapologetic celebration of Washington and the Founders of the original imperfect union was a declaration of his own emancipation from -- or better, transcendence of -- the civil rights movement."

But "he buried it in an otherwise undistinguished speech marred by a foreign policy section featuring the mushy internationalism of his still-bizarre Berlin adventure. . . .

"A complicated man, this new president. Opaque, contradictory and subtle. And that's just day one.

Whitehouse.gov Watch

Anne E. Kornblut writes for The Washington Post: "The new White House web site is expected to display many cool things once it's fully operational (which, currently, it is not).

"But pool reports -- the informal, quick accounts of the president's movements, generated by White House correspondents for their colleagues' consumption -- will not be among them."

The Bushies Fire Back

Peter Baker writes for the New York Times that some former top Bush aides feel Obama "used his inaugural lectern to give the back of the hand to a predecessor who had been nothing but gracious to him.

"'There were a few sharp elbows that really rankled and I felt were not as magnanimous as the occasion called for,' Karen Hughes, a longtime Bush confidante, said in an interview. 'He really missed an opportunity to be as big as the occasion was and, frankly, as gracious as President Bush was as he left office.'

"Dan Bartlett, another top adviser, used similar language. 'It was a missed opportunity to bring some of the president's loyal supporters into the fold,' he said. Marc A. Thiessen, the chief White House speechwriter until this week, added: 'It was an ungracious inaugural. It was pretty clear he was taking shots.'"

Baker writes that Obama aides fired back yesterday: "'On both style and substance,' said Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff, the new president is 'turning the page.'

"Mr. Emanuel mocked Bush advisers for bristling at the message of the Inaugural Address. 'If they didn't know that was the judgment of people, then their subscription to the newspapers were canceled over the last three years,' he said."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart looks at Fox News's Obama fear-mongering: "It is the second full day of the Obama presidency, day number two. It's obviously going to take some time before we get a real clear sense of the direction that this administration is going to go in. Typically the first 100 days is the significant figure. But Fox News, also only two days into the administration, has a different question: 100 days -- will we make it that far?"

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes, Tony Auth, Peter Brookes, and Mike Keefe on torture and Guantanamo; Signe Wilkinson and Robert Ariail on do-overs.

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