Obama Reverses Bush Policies On Detention and Interrogation

President Obama is expected to sign an executive order that would close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within the next year. Yet his administration faces a slew of legal and diplomatic hurdles, and if the effort stumbles, it could bring steep political costs.
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.

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