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A Great Start to Restoring the Rule of Law

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Just hours after his historic inauguration, President Obama has made history again, by signing executive orders that undo, with the stroke of a pen, some of the Bush Administration's worst mistakes. President Obama is off to a great start on restoring the rule of law, and he's giving the country the fresh start we desperately need after the last eight years.

President Obama has rejected the policies of the last administration, both in his words and in his actions. In short order, he has signed orders to close Guantanamo, suspend the military commission system, subject all interrogations to the guidelines in the Army Field Manual, end long-term CIA detentions, require humane treatment of detainees consistent with the Geneva Conventions, and guarantee the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all prisoners held by the U.S. government, and announced a return to the presumption of FOIA disclosure under the Clinton administration. That is a breathtaking list, and the beginning of change that is long overdue.

The new President's quick actions to end both excessive secrecy and flawed detention and interrogation policies are very encouraging. I have long opposed the Bush administration's policies in these areas. As chair of the Senate's Constitution Subcommittee, I held a hearing shining a light on the secret laws that last administration created - keeping OLC opinions under lock and key, for instance - and called for a major overhaul of these policies. I also held a hearing in September 2008 on restoring the rule of law, at which John Podesta and others testified about what changes should be made by a new administration. In December, I wrote then President-elect Obama urging him to take these and other vital steps to restore the rule of law. I applaud his quick action on these issues. It's a great sign of his commitment to working on the other issues that still need to be addressed, from the separation of powers to domestic surveillance and privacy.

But what the President has done so far is a critical break with the past. Finally, U.S. detentions will be in compliance with international law, and we will shut down Guantanamo Bay, which has done so much to undermine our reputation around the world and our ability to gain broader support for our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. Finally, we will put an end to the so called "enhanced interrogation techniques" that go against our values, and damage our national security. Finally, we will begin to end the excessive government secrecy that fed the culture of lawlessness in the last administration.

One of the phrases you hear a lot in Washington, DC, is "the devil is in the details," and that is certainly true with respect to many of these issues, especially the closing of Guantanamo. Under the new orders, detainees will essentially be categorized into 3 groups: (1) those to release or transfer to other countries, (2) those to prosecute in civilian or military courts, and (3) those we can't release but can't try. An interagency panel, led by the Attorney General, will make these determinations based on an individualized review of each detainee and will determine lawful means for dealing with individuals in the third category, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice. I will closely follow how the third category of detainees is handled in the months ahead. Following up on the implementation of all these actions is important, as is working with the President on returning to the rule of law in other areas.

But for today, we can take a moment to recognize the steps the President has already taken, and what they represent. For years now, we've been stuck in reverse, with an administration that rolled back decades of progress on issues like humane treatment of detainees and government secrecy. But President Obama has shown us how we can begin a new way forward, and how we can strengthen our national security without undermining our ideals. On Tuesday we witnessed history, and now we are witnessing fundamental change -- change we should welcome, and that we must also build on to restore the rule of law in our country.

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