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Obama to Close Guantanamo, Selects Envoys for Mideast and South Asia

By Paula Wolfson
White House
23 January 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the closure of the detention center at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is also moving quickly to put his own stamp on United States foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East.

In his second full day in office, Mr. Obama made good on one of his biggest campaign promises.

"We will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who are held there," said President Obama.

He signed a series of executive orders on Thursday. Once calls for the closure of the facility within a year. Another sets strict ground rules for the interrogation and treatment of terror detainees.

"I can say without exception or equivocation, that the United States will not torture," said Mr. Obama.

The president set up a high-level panel that will review the status of all of the detainees at Guantanamo. Those who can be transferred, will. Others will remain until a decision is made on how best to handle their cases.

The treatment of all detainees will be under strict international guidelines. Secret detention facilities run by the U.S. intelligence community will shut down. And the White House says no detainees will be transferred to another country where they will be tortured or mistreated.

President Obama said the goal is to keep the American people safe, while obeying the rule of law and holding fast to moral values.

"We the people will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security," he said. "Once again, America's moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership."

The Guantanamo detention center proved controversial almost since it's founding after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States and the start of the war in Afghanistan. Human rights groups deplored conditions there, and critics contend it has damaged America's moral standing abroad.

In signing the orders to overhaul U.S. policy on terror detainees, Mr. Obama, in a matter of minutes, overturned almost eight years of Bush administration policy.

As he moved from meeting to meeting and issue to issue on Thursday, the president also demonstrated his determination to leave his own stamp on U.S. policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

During his first appearance at the State Department, the president announced he is sending a special envoy to the Middle East - former Senator and veteran negotiator George Mitchell.

He will go to the region as soon as possible to help strengthen the Gaza truce between Israel and the militant group Hamas, and get the peace process back on track.

Mitchell, who helped broker the Northern Ireland peace deal in the 1990s, says there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended.

"This effort must be determined, persevering and patient," said George Mitchell. "It must be backed up by political capital, economic resources and focused attention at the highest levels of our government."

The president also tapped former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to be his envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"This is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism," said Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama has already ordered a full review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. He has vowed to send more American troops there as forces are withdrawn from Iraq.

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