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Obama orders Guantanamo shutdown, new rules for interrogation of terror suspects

Moving to claim what he described as “the moral high ground,” President Obama took a series of steps Thursday to dismantle the most widely condemned components of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

Obama issued a trio of executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, permanently shut the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons and end the agency’s use of interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture.

But on a day meant to demonstrate a clean break from the policies of his predecessor, Obama put off many of the most difficult decisions about what the U.S. will do with detainees, and left room to revisit whether the CIA still should have permission to use coercive methods when questioning captives.

Nonetheless, human rights advocates hailed the steps Obama took. And the president was applauded during a State Department visit when he told diplomats: “I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.”

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In a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, Obama described the orders as more than the fulfillment of a presidential campaign commitment. He said they reflected “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.”

That the orders were issued on Obama’s second full day in office underscored the new administration’s intent to send a powerful signal to overseas allies. But Obama also made sure to include an admonition to adversaries, vowing no letup in the fight against Al Qaeda.

“We intend to win this fight,” Obama said. “We’re going to win it on our own terms.”

The flurry of orders prompted immediate changes at the CIA and elsewhere. Just hours after the documents were signed, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden issued a statement to the agency’s workforce, instructing officers to comply “without exception, carve-out or loophole.”

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Although the orders left the impression of swift action, many of their most important provisions will take time to implement.

The Obama administration will give itself a year, for example, to close Guantanamo Bay -- a timeline that will allow the government to determine which detainees should be tried, which should be transferred to other countries, and what to do with suspected terrorists captured by the U.S. in the future.

There are 245 detainees in the prison. The question of what to do with them is a delicate one that balances the desire to close a facility widely seen as damaging to international standing with the risks of releasing prisoners who many think still pose a serious threat.

The Pentagon has said that 61 former detainees have taken up arms against the U.S. or its allies after being released from the military prison in Cuba.

Citing that concern, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the fundamental challenge was “figuring out how do we close Guantanamo and at the same time safeguard the security of the American people.”

Some Republicans accused the White House of acting rashly and without sufficient concern for the potential risks.

“This is an executive order that places hope ahead of reality -- it sets an objective without a plan to get there,” Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Guantanamo

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The Guantanamo executive order establishes a review procedure to allow officials to examine the cases of all detainees at the prison. The order says the government will determine which detainees can be transferred to other countries and which should be tried in federal courts or in military court-martial proceedings.

It acknowledges that there may be detainees considered too dangerous to be released, but who also can’t be prosecuted in federal or military courts. The order is vague about how the administration will handle those cases.

The Obama administration could continue to hold detainees accused of being “enemy combatants” under the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Otherwise they would have to either transfer the prisoners to other countries or seek a new law allowing some sort of detention without trial -- a step the administration has shown little willingness to take.

The other tricky issue for Obama is where to hold detainees awaiting trial. Military officials have studied sites in Kansas, South Carolina and Southern California. But lawmakers from all three states have voiced opposition to moving accused terrorists to military prisons and brigs in their home states.

Interrogation

A second order issued by Obama banned the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. For the first time, CIA interrogators would be required to abide by a U.S. Army field manual that limits them to 19 approved techniques and eschews any sort of harsh questioning practices.

The approved techniques all rely on various psychological approaches, and prohibit interrogators from making physical contact with suspects or using force.

But Obama appeared to leave an opening for the CIA to again have expanded authority. 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.”

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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.”

In testimony during his confirmation hearing, Blair declined to say whether he thought the interrogation technique known as waterboarding -- in which a prisoner is doused with water to create the sensation of drowning -- was torture.

When pressed on the issue, Blair said he did not want to “put in jeopardy” CIA officers who had employed the method. Asked whether CIA interrogations had been effective, Blair said, “I’ll have to look into that more closely.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the intelligence committee, said he found Blair’s responses “troubling.”

Even so, Blair is expected to be confirmed for the position.

“There will be no waterboarding on my watch,” Blair said. “No torture on my watch.”

Human rights groups praised the direction being taken by Obama, but expressed concern that keeping aspects of interrogation policy secret would continue to raise suspicions.

“We’ve been pretty clear that classifying this, after all we’ve been through, is a big mistake,” said David Danzig, a spokesman for Human Rights First, a group that organized retired U.S. military officers to lobby presidential candidates for the overhaul of interrogation policy. “It suggests that there are secret techniques that can be abusive that will be used.”

Secret prisons

In a separate order, Obama instructed the CIA to close its constellation of secret prisons overseas, which had held some of the most notorious detainees in U.S. custody -- including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The CIA prisons were set up in 2002, but were rarely used after 2006, when a ruling by the Supreme Court prompted President Bush to order 14 prisoners in agency custody to be transferred to Guantanamo. Since then, only two prisoners have been held at CIA facilities for short periods before being sent to Guantanamo.

The order raises the question of what the CIA will do with terrorism suspects captured overseas if it does not wish to bring them to U.S. courts.

Obama’s orders did not ban the controversial CIA practice of “extraordinary rendition,” in which prisoners are transferred by the CIA from one country to another.

Those transfers can continue, according to the orders, as long as prisoners are not taken to other nations “to face torture” or as part of a CIA effort to circumvent international laws on detainee treatment.

“There are some renditions that are, in fact, justifiable, defensible,” said the senior Obama administration official. “There’s not going to be rendition to any country that engages in torture.”

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greg.miller@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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