WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama took his first strides on the world stage Thursday, signing executive orders to effectively end the CIA’s secret interrogation program, to direct the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year and to set up a sweeping review of the treatment of terrorist suspects.
He also named two high-profile envoys to re-energize the search for peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
But even as he reversed the most disputed counterterrorism policies of the Bush years, Obama postponed for at least six months difficult decisions on the details.
He ordered a cabinet-level review of the most challenging questions his administration faces: what to do with dangerous prisoners who cannot be tried in American courts; whether some interrogation methods should remain secret to keep Al Qaeda from training to resist them; and how the United States can make sure prisoners transferred to other countries will not be tortured.
Saying that “our ideals give us the strength and moral high ground” to combat terrorism, Obama signed the executive orders at his desk in the Oval Office, flanked by 16 retired generals and admirals who applauded each of his signings.
“We intend to win this fight,” Obama said, before adding, “We are going to win it on our own terms.”
Several blocks away, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the State Department as the country’s new top diplomat, receiving a rapturous reception from hundreds of staff members, many of them stretching to touch her or taking pictures with cameras or cellphones. In recent memory, only Colin Powell had received as jubilant a reception, on his first day as secretary of state in 2001.
Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. met Clinton there later and announced the appointment of two emissaries: former Senator George Mitchell to oversee Arab-Israeli issues and a former United Nations ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, as special representative for Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
The two men – each once rumored as a candidate for secretary of state – will report to both the White House and the State Department. That may pose a challenge to Clinton as she carves out her place in the Obama administration.
Clinton, however, emphasized unity, saying, “We want to send a clear and unequivocal message: We are a team.” She told her new employees that, as the country’s 67th secretary of state, she would pursue “robust diplomacy” and foster “a sense of openness and candor” in the building.
Both Mitchell and Holbrooke have reputations for effective intervention in cleaning up diplomatic quagmires; Mitchell helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, though he also has Middle Eastern experience (his mother immigrated from Lebanon), while Holbrooke worked forcefully to end the war in Bosnia.
The State Department has been demoralized in recent years by a lack of resources and the growing primacy of the Pentagon in overseas operations. Among those gathered to greet Clinton, there was a palpable sense of hope.
“The employees are ecstatic that we now have a secretary of state who is going to fight for the resources we need,” said John Naland, president of the Association of Foreign Service Officers.
Obama, who has been at the center of a flurry of activity since taking office Tuesday, also received some good news on a cabinet nomination that had met unexpected troubles.
The Senate Finance Committee voted to endorse the confirmation of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, assuring the new president he will have the leader he wants for his economic team. The 18-to-5 vote came a day after Geithner, in a committee hearing, endured hours of grilling over his failure to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes.
In another confirmation hearing, Dennis Blair, the retired admiral who is Obama’s choice as the country’s top intelligence official, pledged Thursday that he would require counterterrorism programs to operate “in a manner consistent with our nation’s values, consistent with our Constitution and consistent with the rule of law.”
Blair appeared to be drawing a sharp contrast with Bush administration policies. He indirectly criticized the eavesdropping without warrants by the National Security Agency and harsh interrogation methods used by the CIA.
One of the executive orders Obama signed requires the CIA to use only the 19 interrogation methods outlined in the Army Field Manual, ending President George W. Bush’s policy of permitting the agency to use some secret methods that went beyond those allowed to the military.
“We believe we can abide by a rule that says we don’t torture, but we can effectively obtain the intelligence we need,” Obama said.
The orders marked an abrupt break with some of the most disputed policies of the Bush administration. Critics for years have accused Bush of permitting torture, while the former president insisted the methods were lawful and had prevented a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Democrats in Congress and human rights groups largely hailed Obama’s moves, while some Republicans said they were unrealistic.
Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that in briefings for Congress on Wednesday, administration officials “could not answer questions as to what they will do with any new jihadists or enemy combatants that we capture.”
By contrast, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, embraced the decisions.
But the orders leave unresolved complex questions surrounding the closing of the Guantánamo prison, including whether, where and how many of the detainees are to be prosecuted. They could also allow Obama to reinstate the CIA’s detention and interrogation operations in the future, by presidential order, as some have argued would be appropriate if Osama bin Laden or another top-level terror leader were captured.
The executive order on interrogations is certain to be received with some skepticism at the CIA, which for years has maintained that the military’s interrogation rules are insufficient to get information from senior Qaeda figures.
The intelligence agency built a network of secret prisons in 2002 to house and interrogate senior Qaeda figures captured overseas.
Though the CIA did not confirm it, a report from the Council of Europe, the European human rights monitoring agency, confirmed in 2007 that clandestine CIA prisons existed in Romania and Poland. The report said that the jails operated from 2003 to 2005.
The secret detentions brought international condemnation, and in September 2006, Bush ordered that the remaining 14 detainees in CIA custody be transferred to Guantánamo Bay and tried by military tribunals.
But Bush made clear then that he was not shutting down the CIA detention system.
Clinton was welcomed at the State Department by the undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns. In a move seen as a gesture to the Foreign Service, she had retained him from the Bush administration. A former ambassador to Russia and Jordan, he is widely respected in the ranks.
But the appointment of two special envoys could revive a perennial tension between the secretary and the most senior career diplomats, who chafe at being sidelined by emissaries.
“If there is a total cutout, with all decisions being made on the 7th floor by five people, the Foreign Service will want to be involved,” Naland said, referring to the floor where Clinton has her office.
Mark Landler, Brian Knowlton, Mark Mazzetti and Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington, and William Glaberson from New York.