WASHINGTON — President Obama signed executive orders Thursday directing the
Central Intelligence Agency to shut what remains of its network of secret
prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp within a year,
government officials said.
The orders, which are the first steps in undoing detention policies of former
President George W. Bush, rewrite American rules for the detention of terrorism
suspects. They require an immediate review of the 245 detainees still held at
the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to determine if they should be
transferred, released or prosecuted.
And the orders bring to an end a Central Intelligence Agency program that kept
terrorism suspects in secret custody for months or years, a practice that has
brought fierce criticism from foreign governments and human rights activists.
They will also prohibit the C.I.A. from using coercive interrogation methods,
requiring the agency to follow the same rules used by the military in
interrogating terrorism suspects, government officials said.
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 Mr. Obama to reinstate the C.I.A.’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
leader of Al Qaeda were captured.
The new White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, briefed lawmakers about some
elements of the orders on Wednesday evening. A Congressional official who
attended the session said Mr. Craig acknowledged concerns from intelligence
officials that new restrictions on C.I.A. methods might be unwise and indicated
that the White House might be open to allowing the use of methods other than the
19 techniques allowed for the military.
Details of the directive involving the C.I.A. were described by government
officials who insisted on anonymity so they could not be blamed for pre-empting
a White House announcement. Copies of the draft order on Guantánamo were
provided by people who have consulted with Mr. Obama’s transition team and
requested anonymity for the same reason.
In remarks prepared for delivery at his confirmation hearings to become director
of national intelligence in the Obama administration, Dennis C. Blair, a retired
admiral with a long background in intelligence, endorsed the new approach and
promised to enforce it rigorously. “It is not enough to set a standard and
announce it,” he said.
“I believe strongly that torture is not moral, legal or effective,” he told the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Any program of detention and
interrogation must comply with the Geneva Conventions, the Conventions on
Torture, and the Constitution. There must be clear standards for humane
treatment that apply to all agencies of U.S. Government, including the
Intelligence Community,” his written statement said.
As for closing Guantanamo, he said that would take time but must be done because
it has become “a damaging symbol to the world.”
“It is a rallyingcry for terrorist recruitment and harmful to our national
security, so closing it is important for our national security,” Admiral Blair’s
“The guiding principles for closing the center should beprotecting our national
security, respecting the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law, and respecting
the existing institutions of justice in this country. I also believe we should
revitalize efforts to transfer detainees to their countries of origin or other
countries whenever that would be consistent with these principles. Closing this
center and satisfying these principles will take time, and is the work of many
departments and agencies.”
The executive order on interrogations is certain to be received with some
skepticism at the C.I.A., which for years has maintained that the military’s
interrogation rules are insufficient to get information from senior Qaeda
figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Bush administration asserted that the
harsh interrogation methods were instrumental in gaining valuable intelligence
on Qaeda operations.
The intelligence agency built a network of secret prisons in 2002 to house and
interrogate senior Qaeda figures captured overseas. The exact number of suspects
to have moved through the prisons is unknown, although Michael V. Hayden, the
departing director of the agency, has in the past put the number at “fewer than
The secret detentions brought international condemnation, and in September 2006,
President Bush ordered that the remaining 14 detainees in C.I.A. custody be
transferred to Guantánamo Bay and tried by military tribunals.
But Mr. Bush made clear then that he was not shutting down the C.I.A. detention
system, and in the last two years, two Qaeda operatives are believed to have
been detained in agency prisons for several months each before being sent to
A government official said Mr. Obama’s order on the C.I.A. would still allow its
officers abroad to temporarily detain terrorism suspects and transfer them to
other agencies, but would no longer allow the agency to carry out long-term
Since the early days after the 2001 attacks, the intelligence agency’s role in
detaining terrorism suspects has been significantly scaled back, as has the
severity of interrogation methods the agency is permitted to use. The most
controversial practice, the simulated drowning technique known as
water-boarding, was used on three suspects but has not been used since 2003,
C.I.A. officials said.
But at the urging of the Bush administration, Congress in 2006 authorized the
agency to continue using harsher interrogation methods than those permitted for
use by other agencies, including the military. Those exact methods remain
classified. The order on Guantánamo says that the camp, which received its first
hooded and chained detainees seven years ago this month, “shall be closed as
soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”
The order calls for a cabinet-level panel to grapple with issues including where
in the United States prisoners might be moved and what courts they could be
tried in. It also provides for a new diplomatic effort to transfer some of the
remaining men, including more than 60 that the Bush administration had cleared
The order also directs an immediate assessment of the prison itself to ensure
that the men are held in conditions that meet the humanitarian requirements of
the Geneva Convention. That provision appeared to be a pointed embrace of the
international treaties that the Bush administration often argued did not apply
to detainees captured in the war against terrorism.
The seven years of the detention camp have included four suicides, hunger
strikes by scores of detainees, and accusations of extensive use of solitary
confinement and abusive interrogations, which the Department of Defense has long
denied. Last week a senior Pentagon official said she had concluded that
interrogators at Guantánamo had tortured one detainee, who officials have said
was a would-be “20th hijacker” in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The report of Thursday’s announcement came after the new administration late
Tuesday night ordered an immediate halt to the military commission proceedings
for prosecuting detainees at Guantánamo and filed a request in Federal District
Court in Washington to stay habeas corpus proceedings there. Government lawyers
described both delays as necessary for the administration to make a broad
assessment of detention policy.
The cases immediately affected include those of five detainees charged as the
coordinators of the 2001 attacks, including the case against Mr. Mohammed, the
The decision to stop the commissions was described by the military prosecutors
as a pause in the war-crimes system “to permit the newly inaugurated president
and his administration time to review the military commission process generally
and the cases currently pending before the military commissions, specifically.”
More than 200 detainees’ habeas corpus cases have been filed in federal court,
and lawyers said they expected that all of the cases would be stayed.
Mr. Obama had suggested in the campaign that, in place of military commissions,
he would prefer prosecutions in federal courts or, perhaps, in the existing
military justice system, which provides legal guarantees similar to those of
American civilian courts.
Some human rights groups and lawyers for detainees said they were concerned
about the one-year timetable. “It only took days to put these men in Guantánamo;
it shouldn’t take a year to get them out,” said Vincent Warren, the executive
director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which has
coordinated detainees’ lawyers.
But several groups that had criticized the Bush administration’s policies
applauded the rapid moves by the new administration. Mr. Obama’s actions
“reaffirmed American values and are a ray of light after eight long, dark
years,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil