WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will begin overhauling U.S. national security policy Thursday with orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, review military trials of terror suspects and end harsh interrogations, two government officials said.
Together, the three executive orders and a presidential directive will reshape how the United States prosecutes and questions al-Qaida, Taliban or other foreign fighters who pose a threat to Americans.
A senior Obama administration official said the president would sign an order Thursday to shutter the Guantanamo prison within one year, fulfilling his campaign promise to close a facility that critics around the world say violates domestic and international detainee rights. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the order has not yet been issued.
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A draft copy of the order, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, notes that "in view of significant concerns raised by these detentions, both within the United States and internationally, prompt and appropriate disposition of the individuals currently detained at Guantanamo and closure of the facility would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice."
An estimated 245 men are being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, most of whom have been detained for years without being charged with a crime. The administration already has received permission to suspend the trials at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.
Two other executive orders and a presidential directive also are expected Thursday, according to the administration official and an aide to a House Republican lawmaker who was briefed on the plans Wednesday by White House counsel Greg Craig. They include:
_An executive order creating a task force that would have 30 days to recommend policies on handling terror suspects who are detained in the future. Specifically, the group would look at where those detainees should be housed since Guantanamo is closing.
_An executive order to require all U.S. personnel to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual while interrogating detainees. The manual explicitly prohibits threats, coercion, physical abuse and waterboarding, a technique that creates the sensation of drowning and has been termed a form of torture by critics. However, the administration also is planning a study of more aggressive interrogation methods that could be added to the Army manual, a second Capitol Hill aide said.
_A presidential directive for the Justice Department to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, who is the only enemy combatant currently being held on U.S. soil. The review will look at whether al-Marri has the right to sue the government for his freedom, a right the Supreme Court already has given to Guantanamo detainees. The directive will ask the high court for a stay in al-Marri's appeals case while the review is ongoing. The government says al-Marri is an al-Qaida sleeper agent.
The House Republican aide was not authorized to discuss the plans publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Where the detainees would be housed if not at Guantanamo has become a point of contention for Obama as he grapples with the already thorny legal issue.
The Guantanamo draft obtained by the AP requires a review of each detainees' case to decide whether they should be returned to their home countries, released, transferred elsewhere or sent to another U.S. prison.
At least three military prisons — at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Charleston, S.C. — could house some of the Guantanamo detainees, according to a second senior administration official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Also under consideration, the official said, is the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., which houses convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph.
House Republican leader John Boehner said he's open to options, "but most local communities around America don't want dangerous terrorists imported into their neighborhoods, and I can't blame them."
"The key question is where do you put these terrorists," Boehner said Wednesday. "Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield? If there is a better solution, we're open to hearing it."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has long contended the U.S. can handle relocating the detainees "just as it has handled the worst criminals and other terrorists before," spokesman David Carle said.
Between 60 and 120 Guantanamo prisoners may be considered low-threat detainees and transferred to other countries, either for rehabilitation or release, the second administration official said. Only Portugal so far has agreed to take some of those detainees, the official said, although diplomatic discussions are ongoing. A State Department spokesman did not immediately know which nations had been asked to accept some prisoners.
It's also unclear how the detainees would be prosecuted. The Guantanamo order would halt ongoing military commission trials and lawsuits filed by detainees seeking their release, pending a review.
Obama's advisers are looking at whether the terror suspects should be tried in federal courts under long-standing military or civilian criminal law. It's possible the administration could call for a new national security court system — a hybrid of the two — although the official described that as "a last resort."
John D. Altenburg Jr., a retired Army general who oversaw the military commissions until November 2006, says Guantanamo should stay open and the tribunals should continue.
Trying detainees in federal courts is problematic, he says, because the evidence was collected "on a battlefield" and may be inadmissible outside the commissions, although "it doesn't mean the evidence is tainted."
But public interest and human rights groups that long have wanted the facility shuttered were quick to urge Obama to be more aggressive than the draft order's proposals.
"It only took days to put these men in Guantanamo," said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It shouldn't take a year to get them out."