Breaking forcefully with Bush anti-terror policies, President Barack Obama ordered major changes Thursday that he said would halt the torture of suspects, close down the Guantanamo detention center, ban secret CIA prisons overseas and fight terrorism "in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals."
"We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our terms," Obama declared, turning U.S. policy abruptly on just his second full day in office. He also put a fresh emphasis on diplomacy, naming veteran troubleshooters for Middle East hotspots.
The policies and practices that Obama said he was reversing have been widely reviled overseas, by U.S. allies as well as in less-friendly Arab countries. President George W. Bush said the policies were necessary to protect the nation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — though he, too, had said he wanted Guantanamo closed at some point.
"A new era of American leadership is at hand," Obama said.
Executive orders signed by the new president would order the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, shut within a year, require the closure of any remaining secret CIA "black site" prisons abroad and bar CIA interrogators of detainees from using harsh techniques already banned for military questioners.
That includes physical abuse such as waterboarding, a technique that creates the sensation of drowning and has been termed torture by critics at home and abroad.
For the signing ceremony, Obama was flanked in the Oval Office by retired senior U.S. military leaders who had pressed for the changes.
Underscoring the new administration's point, the admirals and generals said in a statement: "President Obama's actions today will restore the moral authority and strengthen the national security of the United States."
Not everyone felt that way.
Criticism surfaced immediately from Republicans and others who said Obama's policy changes would jeopardize U.S. ability to get intelligence about terrorist plans or to prevent attacks.
House Minority Leader John Boehner was among a group of GOP lawmakers who quickly introduced legislation seeking to bar federal courts from ordering Guantanamo detainees to be released into the United States.
Boehner, R- Ohio, said it "would be irresponsible to close this terrorist detainee facility" before answering such important questions as where the detainees would be sent.
Obama said he was certain that the nation's security is strengthened — not weakened — when the U.S. adheres to "core standards of conduct."
"We think that 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 said.
"We don't torture," Obama said, but Bush had said the same. The question has always been defining the word.
Later in the day, Obama visited the State Department to welcome newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, emphasizing the importance his administration intends to give diplomacy in his foreign policy. He told Foreign Service officers and other department employees they "are going to be critical to our success."
The president and Clinton jointly announced the appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who helped write the peace deal that ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war, was named special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But for all the talk of a new era, it remained unclear how much of a shift Obama plans for the Middle East.
Though he named high-profile envoys to regions where critics say American attention lagged under Bush, the Mideast policy Obama outlined was no different.
He said he would aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians while also defending Israel's "right to defend itself." He called on Israel and Hamas to take steps to ensure the cease-fire that is in place in Gaza will endure. And he called on Arab states to show more support for the beleaguered Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas.
On the surface, those views mirror the Bush administration's.
As for the treatment of terror suspects, Obama's policy overhaul was an implicit though not directly stated criticism of what he, other Democrats, nations around the globe and human rights groups have called Bush's overreach in the battle against terrorism.
In his presidential campaign, Obama had pledged to close Guantanamo, where many suspects have been detained for years without trial or charge.
Bush, too, had said he wanted to shut down Guantanamo. It never happened on his watch, amid the questions that must be answered to do so: Can other countries be persuaded to take some of the 245 men still be held there? Under what authority should remaining detainees be prosecuted? And, most difficult, what happens to the handful of detainees who are considered both too dangerous to be released to other nations and for whom evidence is deemed either too tainted or insufficient for a trial?
Obama has to answer those same questions.
As to that tough, third category of detainees, a senior administration official said "everything's on the table" as a possibility, including the use of military tribunals that were much criticized by Obama. The official would brief reporters only on condition of anonymity, contending that was necessary in order to speak candidly about details.
The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.
A task force must report in 30 days on where the Guantanamo detainees should go, as well as a destination for future terror suspects.
The national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. criticized Obama's action.
"The detention facility is a valuable tool in the fight against terrorism because it provides useful intelligence information and it keeps our enemies off the battlefield," said Glen Gardner.
Said Obama's GOP rival for the White House, Sen. John McCain: "Numerous difficult issues remain."
Recent polls show the nation essentially split on the topic. An Associated Press-GfK poll last week found about half wanted the prison shut on a priority basis, and 42 percent did not.
On interrogations, another review panel will have 180 days to study whether interrogation techniques allowed under the U.S. Army Field Manual would be acceptably effective in extracting lifesaving intelligence from hardened terrorists.
But the order opens the door to divergences from the Army manual, as it allows the panel to recommend "additional or different guidance" for use by intelligence agencies. That would not, however, allow "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be reintroduced, the official said.
Obama left room for the practice of "extraordinary renditions" of detainees to other nations to continue, though the White House said none would be sent to countries where they might be tortured.
The executive orders also throw out every opinion or memo that the Bush administration used to justify its interrogation programs. And the Obama administration said all terrorism suspects will be covered by standards set by the Geneva Conventions, something the Bush administration opposed.
Obama also ordered the Justice Department to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, who is the only enemy combatant currently being held in the U.S.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Matthew Lee contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun