President Barack Obama has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year. With the stroke of a pen, Obama also ordered the immediate closure of secret CIA prisons overseas and directed all agencies, including the CIA, to abide by the Army Field Manual’s interrogation rules. Obama also nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001. Obama signed the executive orders at a ceremony attended by retired generals and admirals who had spoken out against torture.
President Obama: “In order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interest of justice, I hereby order. And we then provide the process whereby Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.”
Questions still remain over whether the CIA will continue to use secret interrogations techniques not authorized in the Army Field Manual. And the Obama administration hasn’t announced plans to close military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Thursday, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged Obama to review those prisons as well.
UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay: “I appeal to President Obama to also look into similar detention regimes, which have been set up or supported by the US government in Afghanistan and Iraq and ensure that those detainees have judicial review of their detention and their prospects of release or trial.”
Obama also visited the State Department Thursday, where he named two envoys: retired Senate majority leader George Mitchell for the Middle East and former ambassador Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, Holbrooke oversaw weapons shipments to the Indonesian military as it killed a third of East Timor’s population.
Meanwhile, Obama made his first substantive comments on the Middle East conflict since Israel’s attack on Gaza. Obama first mentioned his commitment to Israel’s security, without affirming his commitment to Palestinian security. He condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns, but didn’t criticize the US-backed Israeli bombings of densely populated Gaza. But in a departure from the Bush administration, Obama acknowledged Palestinian suffering and said Gaza’s borders should be opened to aid.
President Obama: "I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long. Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace. As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating. Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them."
In further comments that could signal a departure from Bush, Obama mentioned the Arab League peace initiative, which would offer Israel normalized relations in return for a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and a just resolution for Palestinian refugees. The Bush administration had backed Israel’s rejection of the offer and its expansion of settlements in the Occupied West Bank.
President Obama: "I should add that the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all."
While Palestinan President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Obama’s comments, a Hamas spokesperson told Al Jazeera television Obama’s position does not represent change.
Obama’s comments come as thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continue to return to destroyed homes. On Thursday, thirteen-year-old Dalal Abu Aisha visited the site where her parents and three younger siblings were killed, their home now reduced to rubble.
Dalal Abu Aisha: "What remains from my sister’s mattress is only the iron springs. My sister’s body was stuck together with my mother’s body, and they couldn’t separate them, so they left them together. They couldn’t separate them, so they buried them together."
Dalal had missed the attack on her home because she was visiting an aunt whose young daughter had been killed the day earlier by an Israel tank. The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza has put the Palestinian toll at more than 1,400 killed and 5,500 wounded. One of Gaza’s leading human rights groups, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, says nearly 70 percent of the deaths were civilian. Overall, thirty-four health facilities — eight hospitals and twenty-six clinics — were damaged or destroyed in the Israeli attack.
In Afghanistan, a new independent tally says nearly 4,000 Afghan civilians were killed in violence last year. Another 6,800 were wounded and around 120,000 were displaced from their homes. According to the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, two-thirds died in rebel attacks, while more than 1,100 died at the hands of the US-led occupation.
Meanwhile, there are reports more than two dozen Afghan civilians have been killed in a US attack north of Kabul. Five of the dead were women. A local resident of Tagab Valley said there were no militants in the area at the time. The US military says it’s investigating.
Bolivia is holding a pivotal referendum Sunday on a constitution that would advance social programs and indigenous rights. On Thursday, Bolivian President Evo Morales extended a welcome to President Obama upon his first days in office.
Bolivian President Evo Morales: "Greetings to the new president of the United States, Mr. Obama. When you look at the history of the African Americans, I think you can see several similarities with the indigenous movement in Bolivia. In this new millennium, something is changing. Those that were discriminated against, those that were humiliated, can now be presidents."
Morales wants national backing to redistribute land and energy resources from rich landowners to indigenous peasants, who make up over 60 percent of Bolivia’s population.
Venezuela says it will soon ask the Obama administration to extradite the CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, wanted for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed seventy-three people. The Bush administration harbored Posada, refusing to extradite him to Venezuela or Cuba. Venezuelan lawyers say they’ll present the US with new evidence of Posada’s guilt.
Back in the United States, National Security Agency whistleblower Russell Tice has revealed new details on the Bush administration’s warrantless spy program. Speaking on MSNBC, Tice said government spying extended to virtually all Americans under the false pretense of trying to weed out those not suspected of terrorist activity. Tice also said the spying targeted specific groups, including media organizations and journalists.
Russell Tice: “In one of the operations that I was in, we looked at organizations just supposedly so that we would not target them, so that we knew where they were, as not to have a problem with them. Now, what I was finding out, though, is that the collection on those organizations was 24/7 and, you know, 365 days a year, and it made no sense. And that’s — I started to investigate that. That’s about the time when they came after me to fire me. But an organization that was collected on were US news organizations and reporters and journalists.”
Tice was one of the sources for the New York Times article that exposed the government’s secret domestic surveillance programs. He also spoke out about the domestic wiretapping in a series of televised interviews, including on Democracy Now!
On Capitol Hill, Admiral Dennis Blair faced questions about his role in supporting Indonesian atrocities in East Timor during his confirmation hearing Thursday on becoming Director of National Intelligence. Blair denied breaking with official US policy and supporting the general in charge of a massacre in a Catholic Church. Blair says he told the Indonesian military to end torture and mass killings of East Timorese. Blair said, “Those who say that I was somehow carrying out my own policy or saying things that were not in accordance with American policy are just flat, flat wrong.” US cables and Church documents obtained by the veteran journalist Allan Nairn have directly contradicted Blair’s claims.
The Senate has passed a bill that would overturn a Supreme Court ruling preventing women from filing pay discrimination lawsuits. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named for a female employee of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company who was paid 40 percent less than her male colleagues doing the same job. Ledbetter lost her suit against Goodyear after the court ruled she did not file a complaint on time. Senate Republicans had blocked the same measure last April. It now goes to the House, where it’s expected to pass.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, an abortion clinic was attacked Thursday on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A driver rammed his SUV into the clinic’s front door. No injuries were reported.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney has criticized George W. Bush’s decision not to pardon Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence for his role in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity but didn’t grant a full pardon. Speaking to his biographer, Cheney said, “[Libby] was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon. Obviously, I disagree with President Bush’s decision.”
In bailout news, the Financial Times is reporting the taxpayer-rescued Merrill Lynch accelerated payouts of annual bonuses to a month earlier than normal. The billions of dollars in bonuses were approved just three days after shareholders OKed Merrill Lynch’s merger with Bank of America. Bank of America was given billions in additional bailout money for the takeover. The Merrill Lynch bonuses were paid in late December, a month ahead of the usual payouts in late January or early February.
And here in New York, Governor David Paterson has picked Democratic Congress member Kirsten Gillibrand to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Gillibrand’s selection comes one day after Caroline Kennedy withdrew herself from consideration.