By Dan Froomkin
1:24 PM ET, 01/23/2009
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.)