The power of the pen

On Day 2 of his administration, President Obama reverses key Bush "war on terror" policies, signing orders that end torture, close the CIA's black sites and phase out Guantanamo.

Topics: Hillary Rodham Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Torture, Guantanamo, John Boehner, R-Ohio, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,

The power of the pen

It turns out that the good thing about setting up a classified detention system in Cuba that’s entirely run by the Pentagon, or a secret network of CIA torture chambers around the world, is that the White House can pretty much do whatever it wants with them by executive fiat — including, as of Thursday, order them all shut down, as quickly as possible. (Of course, that power to rule Guantánamo and the secret prisons without any oversight is also one of the main reasons human rights advocates have been clamoring for them to be closed.)

With a few strokes of a pen Thursday, President Obama undid years of policy that was the cornerstone of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” He ordered the prison at Guantánamo to be shut down within a year, the detainees moved to other countries or to regular U.S. courts; forced the CIA to stop torturing people, to close secret “black sites” around the world and to follow the Army Field Manual rules on interrogations; and told the entire government to stop relying on legal opinions issued by the Bush administration to justify policies that were never justifiable except in the eyes of the people who hatched them up.

“This morning, I signed three executive orders,” Obama said at an afternoon ceremony at the State Department, where Hillary Clinton was sworn in as his top diplomatic envoy. One of her first tasks will be to find ways to send some of the Guantánamo prisoners to other countries where they might he held, prosecuted or released, but not mistreated, administration officials said. “First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture,” Obama said. “Second, we will close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there. And third, we will immediately undertake a comprehensive review to determine how to hold and try terrorism suspects to best protect our nation and the rule of law.”

The orders weren’t a complete and immediate reversal of Bush and Dick Cheney’s Jack Bauer-esque security policy. The prison camp at Guantánamo won’t close for a year, and Obama’s orders said the government would “review” what to do with detainees it can’t transfer to other countries or prosecute in regular or military courts, leaving an out that could lead to yet more tribunals outside the normal rule of law. “If there is evidence to suggest that a detainee is very dangerous, and there is reason to be concerned that he would be a danger to United States citizens if he was released … but there is not evidence that would be admissible in a court of law that you could use to prosecute,” then detainees might be shunted off to some other system, said a senior administration official (whom Salon cannot identify, under the rules of a briefing the official conducted, but whom White House press secretary Robert Gibbs later referred to several times as “Greg” during his own briefing; a glance at the White House senior staff roster might help demystify that reference). Likewise, the administration will review the Army Field Manual to determine whether it really meets the CIA’s needs, though the senior official said the White House doesn’t intend to bring back “enhanced interrogation” techniques like, say, pouring water on detainees to make them think they’re drowning.

You Might Also Like

Even if it takes a while to close Gitmo, though, and no matter how potential loopholes are closed, the orders represented a sharp break with policy that had seemed untouchable during the Bush era. Merely raising questions about the secret prisons, or asking why the U.S. was torturing prisoners in the name of protecting democratic ideals, used to generate outraged cries from the Bush White House — and from Republicans around town. When the Washington Post broke the news that the secret prisons existed, Republicans in Congress launched an investigation into the paper’s sources, and suggested the mere publication of the story put Americans in danger. “We have to work the dark side,” Cheney proclaimed shortly after 9/11 — and his office then oversaw the production of legal documents within the administration that justified any number of extreme measures. The Bush White House fought tooth and nail against efforts to bring Guantánamo under the supervision of U.S. courts, a battle it finally lost last summer.

Some Republicans kept the fight up Thursday. “We should not gamble with the safety and security of the American people and our troops on the battlefield,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said. After all, moving alleged terrorists into U.S. courts — and prisons — could set off the mother of all NIMBY battles. The GOP is firmly on the side of continuing to keep the whole problem far from American soil. “It is safer for the American people to keep committed terrorists at a secure facility hundreds of miles away from our shores rather than in facilities located in or near American communities,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky.

But the Obama White House seemed to be ready to put down any charges that the new chief executive was risking much by his actions. “The president believes that what he did today will enhance the security of the American people, that it lives up to our values as Americans, and that it will protect the men and women that we have in uniform,” Gibbs said in what was the new press secretary’s first televised press briefing. Obama signed the executive orders about torture and Gitmo in the presence of no less than 16 retired generals and admirals at the White House, a clear sign Obama’s imagemakers didn’t want anyone getting the idea he was soft on terror. The message wasn’t exactly subtle. But if the administration really follows through on Thursday’s orders, the message the U.S. will send around the world won’t be, either.


Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>