Jan. 22, 2009— -- In a sweeping break from Bush administration policies, President Obama signed three new executive orders, the first of which calls for shutting down the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center "as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from now," as ABC News first reported Wednesday.
"The president believes that what he did today will enhance the security of the American people, that it lives up to our values as American people. ..." White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The second order requires all U.S. interrogators in all agencies to adhere to rules in the Army Field Manual, and shuts down CIA detention centers around the world. As promised in his campaign, Obama's order also demands that detainees be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
"This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think 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," the president, with Vice President Joe Biden at his side, said before he signed the order.
In a press conference this afternoon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the need to go beyond the manual is "dramatically less than it was several years ago" and that he feels "very comfortable with where the executive order places us."
The third executive order establishes an interagency task force co-chaired by Gates and the attorney general to conduct a review of all 248 detainees currently in Cuba to determine who can be transferred to other countries, who should be tried in U.S. courts, and what should be done with those who cannot be tried or transferred.
The president also signed a memorandum stating that the Department of Justice would review the case of Qatar native Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only enemy combatant who is not in Guantanamo Bay. Behind this order is the idea that he needs to get the same kind of review that other detainees are getting.
"With those three executive orders and this memorandum, the message we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly; we are going to do so effectively; and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals," said Obama, surrounded by 16 retired military officers who he held a meeting with this morning. "We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our terms."
Obama says America is taking the moral high ground in the fight against terrorism by allowing top suspects to come to the United States to stand trial according to the rule of law and serve their time in four available prisons. Opponents are asking if the high ground is safe.
The president's sweeping orders effectively dismantled the Bush administration's system for handling terrorists, prompting criticism that his actions were shortsighted and dangerous.
Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, have expressed concern about where the detainees will go and say there are lots of questions still to be answered.
"I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here," Boehner said at a press conference this afternoon. "Do we bring them into our borders? Do we release them back into the battlefield, like some 61 detainees that have been released we know are back on the battlefield? And do we release them to get back and rejoin this fight? ... I'm concerned that some will be let go too soon, could end up back on the battlefield."
"Clearly, these are not the kind of people you would want to put in our city jails or our state prisons," he said.
Currently 248 detainees are being held at the U.S. military base in Cuba. In setting up the prison and the military tribunal at Guantanamo Bush argued that America was engaged in a new kind of war calling for new policies such as harsh interrogation methods and secret prisons to avert further attacks.
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions," Bush said in his farewell address before leaving office earlier this month. "But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Despite Republican concerns, a group of 16 military officials gathered at the White House today to support the policy changes to limit interrogation methods and close Guantanamo.
"We need to fight this battle on our battleground, which is the rule of law and support of human rights, and Guantanamo undermined that message at every turn," Ret. Admiral John Hutson said.
Obama's order for all agencies to adhere to Army rules in conducting interrogations has come under attack from some critics, who insist that the kinds of harsh interrogation techniques characterized as "torture" by Attorney General nominee Eric Holder in fact have yielded valuable information.
"These interrogations provided critically important information," Cornyn said, "and I know that's been disclosed over the years, particularly in regard to someone like KSM, the mastermind of 9/11." (KSM refers to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has said in court at that he wishes to be "martyred" for his role in the attacks.)
Ret. Admiral John Hutson disagrees, calling torture a "method of choice for the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough."
"It is absolutely clear that the best way to get actionable intelligence is not by the use of harsh interrogation," Hutson said. "But through other kinds of tactics, rapport-building kind of things."
Obama's decrees have ruled out the use of torture, secret prisons and techniques such as the highly controversial waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
In a note sent to employees following these orders, CIA Director Mike Hayden said the agency would follow direction from the new government "without exception, carve-out or loophole" but added that "our agency has many counterterror tools in its arsenal. The rendition, detention and interrogation program has been an important one."
Just last week, Hayden was asked about putting the CIA under the Army Field Manual in a briefing, to which he said, "I would never order it."
"To assume automatically that a manual written for the purposes of the Army Field Manual would suit the needs of the Republic in all circumstances, I just think that's a real shot in the dark," he said.
Torture techniques, especially waterboarding, were a hotly contested topic during Obama's presidential campaign. After he won the presidential election, Obama reiterated time and again that the United States does not torture.
"I was clear throughout this campaign and have been clear throughout this transition that under my administration, the States do not torture," Obama said at a press conference two weeks ago. "We will abide by the Geneva Conventions that we will uphold our highest values and ideals."
Like his first full day in office, Obama's schedule is fully booked again today. The president spent the morning meeting with top economic advisers and his senior staff.
In the afternoon, Obama headed over to the State Department and met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
Before an audience of State Department employees, Obama and Clinton announced new envoys -- a "new era of leadership" -- including former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East, and Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This morning, newly minted Secretary of State Clinton emphasized diplomacy and teamwork in a speech to department employees on her first day.
"I believe with all my heart this is a new era for America," Clinton said. "We will make clear as we go forward that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States."
Obama is already focusing on international diplomacy despite the mountains of domestic challenges facing him.
Wednesday he met with national security advisers, the Iraqi ambassador and Gen. David Petraeus to begin working on a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq by the summer of 2010.
"During the discussion, I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq," Obama said in a statement following the meeting. "In the coming days and weeks ... we will undertake a full review of the situation in Afghanistan in order to develop a comprehensive policy for the entire region."
Fixing the Recession
Guantanamo Bay and Iraq are not the only hot button issues facing Obama. The administration is likely to face increasing pressure to implement a fix for the economy. Even though Obama has repeatedly warned that things will get worse before they get better, he has taken steps that his administration feels will bring some relief to the economy, such as working with Congress members to draft a new stimulus package. Gibbs said today that the president would also receive daily economic briefings just as he receives intelligence briefings.
Last week, senators gave the Obama administration access to the remaining $350 billion in the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to stabilize the financial markets, which the new team has promised to spend with more accountability. Today, the House will vote on the same resolution. House leaders are expected to meet President Obama next week to discuss the stimulus package and other issues.
But as Obama has warned, finding a fix might not be easy or quick as the recession continues to worsen.
The number of people filing for new jobless benefits jumped to 589,000 last week, a figure that is considerably higher than analysts' expectations of 520,000. The figures from the previous week were also revised up to 527,000.
He also vowed more transparency in his administration and to "close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave."
ABC News' Luis Martinez and Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report.