WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday signed executive orders to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year, and to ban the Central Intelligence Agency from operating other detention facilities.
Obama's orders also revoked the Bush administration's interpretations of what kind of interrogations are permitted under the Geneva Conventions and told interrogators they must abide by the limits on interrogation techniques contained in the Army Field Manual and in other U.S. laws.
The same order also told interrogators that they could no longer rely on any legal interpretation issued between Sept. 11, 2001 and Jan. 20, 2009, Obama's inauguration date — language that may indicate that the Obama White House is uncertain what other legal justifications for the Bush detainee policies may exist.
The president signed the orders in the Oval Office just after 11 a.m., with Vice President Joe Biden at his side, after meeting with a group of retired military officers. "We can abide by a rule that says 'We don't torture,' " Obama said. The orders, he said, reflect "an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers that we are willing to observe…standards of conduct not just when it is easy but also when it's hard."
In a third executive order, Obama established a task force to be led by the secretary of defense and the attorney general to review detainee policies and recommend other changes.
In a memordandum also releaed Thursday, Obama instructed the attorney general to conduct a review of the status of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who is currently held at the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. Al Marri is the only so-called "enemy combatant" held inside the United States.
The timing of these sweeping changes, on just the second full day of Obama’s presidency, is meant to send a signal to the international community that the new administration will not employ torture in interrogations of terrorism suspects and is seeking renewed trust and support of disenfranchised nations.
CIA director Michael Hayden issued a statement to CIA employees, telling them they must obey the president's new orders "without exception, carve-out, or loophole." But he also had praise for the former policies that Obama was rejecting: "The rendition, detention and interrogation program has been an important one," he said.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill praised the moves.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the orders "a refreshing new approach after eight years of secrecy and efforts to cast all blame on individual guardsmen and soldiers for abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere that derived from decisions made at the highest levels of the Bush administration."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said intelligence and diplomatic experts felt revising detention and interrogation policies would improve the nation’s ability to combat terrorism. “I will study the new executive orders in greater detail, but at first look, they appear to lay out a responsible and careful path that maintains every effective tool needed to defeat terrorists,” Reid said in a statement.
"In fact, I am convinced these changes will strengthen and enhance our counterterrorism efforts, as we restore America’s standing in the world.”
Some Republicans expressed concerns. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Republican whip in the House of Representatives, said moving terrorists around within U.S. borders would weaken national security and that Americans would not want international terrorists held near them were that to pass as a result of closing Guantanamo.
"How does it make sense to close down the Guantanamo facility before there is a clear plan to deal with the terrorists inside its walls?" Cantor said. "What will American soldiers do with the terrorists they capture in the field before a presidential commission offers them a clear position?"