President Obama sent the world a clear message Thursday that he's changing course from the Bush years, ordering an end to some of the most controversial tools used against suspected terrorists and launching high-profile diplomacy in the Middle East and other hot spots around the globe. Obama signed executive orders closing the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, outlawing aggressive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding on suspected terrorists and shutting down secret CIA prisons. "We have no time to lose," he said at the State Department as he welcomed newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to help him forge "a new era of American leadership" in the world.
Obama said he was signaling that the United States would confront global violence without sacrificing American values and ideals. "First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture," he said. "Second, we will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there." Obama also signed an order requiring all U.S. personnel to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual while interrogating detainees and told the Justice Department to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, who is the only enemy combatant being held in the United States.
National Intelligence Director-nominee Dennis Blair pledged to Congress on Thursday that there would be no torture on his watch, but wouldn't say whether he believes waterboarding — a form of simulated drowning — is torture. Blair dodged the question from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., during his confirmation hearing, even as Obama was signing orders banning harsh interrogations. Blair said he didn't want to jeopardize intelligence officers directed by the Bush administration to use waterboarding against detainees. The technique was used on three high-profile al-Qaida prisoners in 2002 and 2003.
Congressional Democrats welcomed the moves, but Republicans were skeptical. "President Obama is ushering in a new era of smart, strong and principled national security policies, and Congress stands ready to work with him each step of the way," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, outgoing chairman of the Intelligence Committee. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans filed a bill seeking to bar federal courts from ordering Guantanamo detainees to be released into the United States. It "would be irresponsible to close this terrorist detainee facility" before "important questions" are resolved, Boehner said.
Obama and Clinton jointly announced the appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a veteran troubleshooter who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who helped write the peace deal that ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war, was named special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama said he would seek lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians while defending Israel's "right to defend itself." Citing a "deteriorating situation" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama said that region is now "the central front" in the battle against terrorism and extremism. Holbrooke pledged to bring coherence to foreign assistance efforts he described as "chaotic."
The Senate Finance Committee cleared the way for Timothy Geithner's confirmation as treasury secretary despite concern about his admission that he was years late in paying some federal income taxes. Other nominations freed up Thursday included Lisa Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Nancy Sutley for the Council of Environmental Quality and Susan Rice to be ambassador to the United Nations. A confirmation vote by the full Senate has yet to be set for Geithner. Judiciary Committee Republicans delayed a hearing on Eric Holder's nomination to head the Justice Department until Tuesday. Seven Cabinet members have been confirmed by the Senate.
After a day off after their father's inauguration, the Obama girls were back Thursday in class at the private Sidwell Friends School. Malia, 10, is a fifth-grader while Sasha, 7, is in second grade. While the two hit the books, doll makers are cashing. Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia, from the Ty Girlz collection made by Ty Inc., sold out Thursday at Lamont's gift shop in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Chicago.