WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sent the world a clear message Thursday that he's changing course from the Bush years, ordering an end to some of the most controversial tools used against suspected terrorists and launching high-profile diplomacy in the Middle East and other hot spots around the globe.
Obama signed executive orders that commanded the closing of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, outlawed aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding on suspected terrorists and shut down secret CIA prisons.
He then sped to the State Department to watch as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dispatched two high-profile envoys to trouble spots, former Sen. George Mitchell to the Middle East and former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama said that his actions would make Americans safer, restore a tradition of honoring the rights even of suspected terrorists to be treated humanely and start winning back respect overseas.
"I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture," the president said at the State Department.
"The message that we are sending around the world," he said as he signed the executive orders in the Oval Office, "is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals."
"It is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world," he added. "We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our terms."
Democrats and human rights groups praised Obama's orders.
"President Obama's new executive orders are important steps toward bringing to an end some of the Bush administration's most damaging national-security policies," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"Our new president is sending a clear signal that we are moving forward and demonstrating to the world that we can both protect our national security and remain a nation of laws that respects human dignity."
"We welcome the beginning of the end of lawlessness," said Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, Obama's election opponent, applauded the decision. "We support President Obama's decision to close the prison at Guantanamo, reaffirm America's adherence to the Geneva Conventions and begin a process that will, we hope, lead to the resolution of all cases of Guantanamo detainees," the two senators said in a statement.
Other Republicans, however, reacted with anger and warnings that terrorists would end up on American streets.
"What we're going to have is all of a sudden, in all likelihood, the release of some of those individuals into our society, and we know that they are mean, nasty killers," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
"The Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with the worst of the worst: terrorists and killers bent on murdering Americans and other friends of freedom around the world," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House of Representatives. "I'm not sure there are many Americans who want these terrorists in a prison or a holding facility near them."
Obama ordered the Guantanamo center closed within a year. He set up a task force and gave it 30 days to recommend how to handle the 245 people detained there and any future detainees.
In restricting interrogation policy, he ordered that American personnel follow the U.S. Army Field Manual's procedures.
The White House also announced the nominations of four top Justice Department officials, including a lawyer who sparked controversy for the Bush administration. David Kris, who raised objections to the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program as a former Justice lawyer, was tapped to head the department's national security division.
Also nominated: Tony West, a former federal prosecutor and Obama fundraiser, to head the civil division, Lanny Breuer, a former Clinton administration White House counsel, to head the criminal division, and Christine Varney, who served on the Federal Trade Commission under former President Bill Clinton, to oversee the antitrust division.
In sending Mitchell and Holbrooke to bolster the work of career diplomats, Obama tapped well-known veterans of international negotiation, Mitchell in Northern Ireland, Holbrooke at the United Nations and in Bosnia.
Hillary Clinton called the high-level outreach a sign that the United States will use diplomacy as well as military power to try to assert itself internationally.
"We must be smarter about how we exercise our power," she said. "Anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail to produce a lasting, sustainable peace in either place."
As Obama vowed aggressive diplomacy in the Middle East, he spoke out for the first time on the fighting between Israel and Gaza. For weeks he'd declined to comment, saying that only then-President George W. Bush could speak for the United States on foreign policy.
"Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats," he said.
"For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror."
He added, however, that, "Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.
"I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water and basic medical care, and who've faced suffocating poverty for far too long.
"We must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace. As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza's border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime" and with the international community and the Palestinian Authority participating.
(Marisa Taylor and David Lightman contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY