President Obama is expected to sign executive orders today for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and secret CIA jails overseas. The closures would take effect within a year. In addition to shuttering CIA jails, the order is also expected to rewrite the rules on interrogating prisoners. Government officials told the New York Times President Obama is expected to ban the secretive indefinite jailing of prisoners and order CIA agents to follow the same interrogation rules used by the military. But a congressional official said White House counsel Gregory Craig told lawmakers last night Obama might still allow interrogation methods other than the nineteen approved for military use. Obama has already ordered a four-month suspension of all military tribunals at Guantanamo. While human rights groups have welcomed the moves, some say the one-year closure timetable is too long. Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, “It only took days to put these men in Guantánamo; it shouldn’t take a year to get them out.”
On his first full day in the Oval Office, Obama unveiled new White House ethics rules on the role of lobbyists.
President Obama: “As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history. If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president.”
Obama also announced a pay freeze for all top White House officials.
President Obama: “During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington. That’s why I am instituting a pay freeze on the salaries of my senior White House staff. Some of the people in this room will be affected by the pay freeze, and I want you to know that I appreciate your willingness to agree to it.”
President Obama also met with his national security team. In discussions on Iraq, Obama did not order a withdrawal of US troops towards his campaign pledge of pulling out combat forces within sixteen months. Obama instead says he’ll first weigh concerns from military commanders. In a statement, Obama said he’s asked military leaders to draw up additional plans for what he called a “military drawdown.” Obama also said he’s ordered a review of the occupation of Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on escalating the US occupation there.
President Obama retook the oath of office Wednesday to allay concerns over an error during the inauguration ceremony. Chief Justice John Roberts misplaced the word “faithfully” and Obama repeated the mistake. Roberts re-administered the oath at the White House last night.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner is expected to be confirmed after answering a series of questions on his own tax history. Geithner initially failed to pay some $43,000 in personal taxes before eventually paying it back. Geithner apologized before the Senate Treasury committee.
Timothy Geithner: “I have gone back and corrected these errors and paid what I owed. I want to apologize to the committee for putting you in the position of having to spend so much time on these issues when there is so much pressing business before the country.”
Geithner went on to discuss the new administration’s plans for an economic recovery.
Timothy Geithner: “A comprehensive plan to help stabilize the core of our financial system so that the banks that are so critical to our economy are able to provide the credit necessary to get recovery going again. He’s going to lay out a comprehensive plan for addressing the housing crisis in this country, which has been so central to the recession and its basic causes. And he’s going to lay out a broad set of programs for trying to directly address the constraints that are now making it harder for small businesses for students, for people who want to buy a car, for municipalities across the country, to get access to credit to make those things.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate has confirmed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the new Secretary of State. Democratic Senator John Kerry said Clinton would help change US foreign policy.
Sen. John Kerry: “I believe that Senator Clinton is in a position to provide an historical shift in American foreign policy, where we reach out to the world with the best of our values and the best of our thinking and the best of our hopes and intentions.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s pick for attorney general, Eric Holder, is facing increasing Republican opposition. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a vote on approving Holder after Republicans voiced concerns he would prosecute intelligence officials involved in torture. At his confirmation hearing last week, Holder said he believes waterboarding is a form of torture.
President Obama made some of his first calls to foreign leaders to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict. Obama called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. He did not reach out to leaders of Hamas, who rose to power in democratic elections three years ago. Meanwhile, Obama plans to announce the selection of former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. Mitchell is expected to travel to the region within days.
Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories, the toll from Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip continues to rise as more bodies are found beneath the rubble of destroyed homes and buildings. More than 100 corpses have been recovered since Israel declared a ceasefire on Saturday. Despite the official ceasefire, Israeli gunboats continue to shell areas of Gaza. Earlier today, a Palestinian man and girl were wounded when an Israeli gunboat shelled the shores of Gaza City. The Israeli military said it opened fire to fend off a Palestinian fishing boat that it says went too far offshore.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected a petition from two human rights groups seeking the evacuation of Gaza’s wounded and the immediate delivery of electricity to power Gaza’s crumbling infrastructure. Gaza’s health, water and sewage systems all suffered extensive damage in the Israeli attack after already barely functioning before the invasion. The court rejected the petitions without even waiting to hear the arguments against it by the Israeli government.
The exiled political leader of Hamas is urging the US and European nations to end its boycott and negotiate. Speaking in Syria, Khaled Meshaal said, “Three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough. It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle.” Meshal also hinted that Hamas would still be open to a political settlement with Israel, saying, “This battle has proved that force alone will not provide security for [Israel] and that peace will not be at the expense of Palestinian rights.”
The Israeli military, meanwhile, says it will probe allegations of illegal use of white phosphorus during the Gaza assault. Israel has been accused of illegally firing white phosphorus over crowded refugee camps in Gaza. Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch said he fears Israel’s probe will cover up its actions.
Bill Van Esveld: “The problem is that you can’t use it over a densely populated area in a legal way, because it continues to burn when it hits the ground. It can set buildings on fire. It can stick to the skin and burn all the way down to the bone and kill you. It can be deadly when you inhale it. And it can’t discriminate between a civilian and a military object…We’re glad the IDF is going to investigate, but we’re also concerned that this investigation not be a whitewash.”
Here in New York, Caroline Kennedy has announced she’s withdrawing her bid to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. In a statement, Kennedy cited “personal reasons” for her decision. Caroline Kennedy’s uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last May.
And new figures show the number of Americans obtaining healthcare through Medicaid is growing at an unprecedented rate. The New York Times reports Medicaid rolls grew by five to ten percent in a number of states. In many areas, the increase was at least double the rate over last year.