ANALYSIS: On prisons and torture, Obama mops up American image

Thursday, January 22, 2009 | 5:55 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama mops a nasty stain off the American image with his sweeping moves to close the Guantanamo prison, ban torture and upend Bush administration polices on terror suspects.

The new president's rupture with his predecessor's way of doing business, including orders to close secret CIA overseas prisons, gained Obama high praise at home and abroad Thursday. The benefits can hardly be overstated.

But honeymoons always end, and Obama is stuck with one of the knottier foreign policy and legal problems he's likely to face:

What's to be done with captives who are certifiably too dangerous to release but who cannot be brought to trial for risk of revealing intelligence secrets or because evidence against them was elicited under torture?

For now, Obama loses nothing and gains everything from the momentous shift. But time is short to transform that symbolism into substance.

Thursday's orders could be seen, especially in the Muslim world, as little more than window dressing — a new face on a new administration's fight against what the U.S. still sees as an unchanging terrorist foe that is sly, brutal and deadly.

In ordering the dramatic changes, the president foresaw that challenge and established a task force from among all government agencies assigned to protect national security and prevent a future terrorist attack. Its charge: come up with a workable new model "so we don't find ourselves in this position going forward."

In his first White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs emphasized that Obama took action with American security uppermost in his mind. But the spokesman repeatedly refused to, as he put it, "prejudge" what the task force would decide.

The job is daunting, and new policies will be held to perhaps impossibly high standards.

The American Civil Liberties Union was not immediately satisfied.

"There are ... ambiguities in the orders regarding treatment of certain detainees that could either be the result of the swiftness with which these orders were issued or ambivalence within the Obama administration. We are hopeful that as the process unfolds and gets clarified, there will be no doubt that detainees must either be charged, prosecuted and convicted or they need to be released," said Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.

Still, many Americans believe, as did the Bush administration, that enhanced interrogation is warranted against suspects who otherwise, the argument holds, would never disclose plans for information about terror attacks.

Many nominal U.S. allies in the Muslim world, meanwhile, rule over populations that view the boot of one American soldier on their soil as an affront to God and are prepared to sacrifice their lives to right that perceived wrong whether there is a Guantanamo or not.

Understanding his great difficulties in those lands, Obama named two special representatives Thursday for a new run at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stanching the growing resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell was assigned to bring his vast negotiating experience to the former problem. Richard Holbrooke, a former top State Department official, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended fighting in Bosnia, takes on Afghanistan.

There are international organizations that found past concerns dismissed out of hand by the Bush administration.

At the United Nations, torture investigator Manfred Nowak warned that inmates eventually freed from Guantanamo should be allowed to sue the United States if they were mistreated.

"Justice also means to look into the past," said Nowak, an Austrian law professor. He contends there are reliable accounts that Guantanamo detainees have been tortured.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the organization would closely monitor the Guantanamo closure.

"Indeed the question now will be how it will be closed down and what it will mean for the detainees that are in there," he said.

Obama won kudos from the European Union, which had been highly critical of Guantanamo and the treatment of prisoners. But now part of the problem could fall to them.

"Obama's multilateralism will call us Europeans to our responsibilities," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "If Guantanamo closes, what are we going to do with those inmates, if for instance they are European citizens?"

Be careful what you wish for. And it's a question nations around the world most likely will confront before the year is out.

Steven R. Hurst covers the White House and is a former AP Baghdad bureau chief.


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