US President Barack Obama was to sign yesterday a series of executive orders to close the Guantanamo “war on terror” prison, end harsh interrogation tactics and shutter secret prisons, marking a dramatic reversal of policy from his predecessor.
Obama’s move to close Guantanamo within a year and issue more intelligence policy changes marked a dramatic reversal in policy from his predecessor, George W. Bush, but left unanswered questions about where the inmates would go.
The new US president also dove into tricky Middle East diplomacy, ordered a troop drawdown in Iraq and called in top economic chiefs for a progress report on the dark domestic crisis during a whirlwind first full day in power.
Assisting him in his vow to forge fundamental political change, he will have his top foreign policy lieutenant on the job: Hillary Clinton was confirmed as secretary of state by the Senate on a 94-2 vote on Wednesday and the Middle East will top her agenda of problems.
The president was to kick off the day by signing an executive order that would start the process of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, a White House official said.
“The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable and no later than one year from the date of this order,” said the draft order, posted on the Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union and confirmed by a White House source.
White House counsel Greg Craig told Democratic and Republican lawmakers late on Wednesday “to expect ‘several’ executive orders on Guantanamo Bay,” the Washington Post said citing sources familiar with the briefings.
The orders involve “altering CIA detention and interrogation rules, limiting interrogation standards in all US facilities worldwide to those outlined in the Army Field Manual and prohibiting the agency from secretly holding terrorist detainees in third-country prisons,” it said.
A revised version of the Army Field Manual was released in 2006, explicitly banning controversial techniques such as beating, using dogs to intimidate them, electric shocks and waterboarding, which critics say is tantamount to torture.
The New York Times said the “orders would bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years.”
But serious questions remain open, such as what to do with the estimated 245 still languishing in the jail, said Stephen Vladeck, associate professor of law at American University.
“Are some of the detainees going to be sent home? Are some of them going to be sent to criminal trials in the United States? Until we have an answer to those questions, it’s hard to assess the significance,” he said.
Earlier, flexing his diplomatic muscles in the Middle East for the first time, Obama telephoned Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Obama “used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term,” his spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
During the presidential election campaign, Obama had pledged to meet top military brass on his first day in office and order them to start planning a withdrawal from Iraq and on Wednesday he followed through on the promise.