WASHINGTON - Moving to claim what he described as "the moral high ground," President Barack Obama took a series of steps yesterday to dismantle the most widely condemned components of the Bush administration's war on terror.
Obama issued a trio of executive orders to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, permanently close 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 with the policies of his predecessor, Obama put off many of the most difficult decisions on what the United States now will do with detainees, and left room to revisit whether the CIA should still have permission to use coercive methods when questioning captives.
Nonetheless, human rights advocates hailed those steps and Obama 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."
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 also reflect "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 just 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 let-up in the fight against al-Qaida.
"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 work force instructing officers to comply, "without exception, carve-out or loophole."
While 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 new accused terrorists captured by the United States.
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 U.S. standing with the risks of releasing prisoners who many believe still pose a serious threat.
The Pentagon has said that 61 former detainees have taken up arms against the United States or its allies after being released from Guantanamo. Citing that concern, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the fundamental challenge "is 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 of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
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.
The order 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.
A second order issued by Obama banned the use of so-called "enhanced" interrogation techniques. For the first time, CIA interrogators would be required to abide by a U.S. Army field manual that limits interrogators 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 any physical contact with suspects, or using force.
But Obama appeared to leave an opening for the CIA to again have expanded authorities. 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 stressed that there was no intent to create a loop-hole.
"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 U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Obama's nominee to serve as the next director of national intelligence, testified yesterday 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 water-boarding - 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, a Michigan Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he found Blair's responses "troubling." Even so, Blair is expected to be confirmed for the position, and vowed to prohibit coercive methods.
"There will be no water-boarding on my watch," Blair said. "No torture on my watch."
In a separate order yesterday, Obama instructed the CIA to close its constellation of secret prisons overseas, facilities that previously held some of the most notorious detainees in U.S. custody, including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The secret CIA prisons were set up in 2002, but were rarely used after 2006, when a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court prompted President Bush to order 14 prisoners still in agency custody to be transferred to Guantanamo. Since then, only two prisoners were 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.
The new Obama orders did not ban the controversial CIA practice of 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.