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Public Statements

Executive Orders

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

EXECUTIVE ORDERS -- (Senate - January 22, 2009)

Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, today is a very significant day for the rule of law in the United States of America, and a powerful statement that the United States again stands for the time-honored principles and values that have made us a beacon to the world.

This morning, the President of the United States signed Executive orders ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay pri son within a year; suspending all military commissions at Guantanamo Bay; closing secret third-country prisons; and placing interrogation in all American facilities for all U.S. personnel under the guidelines of the Army Field Manual.

In a season of transformational changes, these are among the most profoundly meaningful because they will sustain the long-term health of the most cherished ideals of our Republic: respect for the rule of law, individual rights, and American moral leadership.

The threa t our Nation faces from terrorism is all too real. And we should all agree that sometimes, in the name of national security, it is necessary to make difficult ethical decisions to protect the American people.

However, I believe that the use of torture and indefinite detention have not only tarnished our honor but also diminished our security. In this global counterinsurgency effort against al Qaida and its allies, too often our means have undercut our efforts against extremism. In this struggle, the people are the center of gravity. And too often we have wasted one of the best weapons we have in our arsenal: the legitimacy we wield when we exercise our moral authority.

Efforts to justify, explain away, or endorse the use of torture have played directly into a central tenet of al Qaida's recruiting pitch: that everyday Muslims across the world have something to fear from the United States of America. From Morocco to Malaysia, people regularly hear stories of torture and suicide at Abu Ghraib, Guant anamo, and other overseas prisons. The result has been a major blow to our credibility worldwide, particularly where we need it most: in the Muslim world.

Torture and lawlessness are not easily contained. Once the strictures are loosened, the corner-cutting practices spread. The Pentagon used high-level Guantanamo detainees to test coercive interrogation techniques, but such techniques eventually found their way to low-level detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. While images of Abu Ghraib have long fa ded from American minds and media, they remain fixtures, years later, across the Arab and Muslim world.

As Senator McCain has argued, the use of techniques like waterboarding--invented in the Spanish Inquisition and prosecuted by the American Government as a Japanese war crime after World War II--leaves its scars on a democratic society as well. Torture, which flourishes in the shadows, depends on lies--not just from those who seek to avoid torture, but from those who seek to conceal it. After years o f Orwellian denials and legalistic parsing, what a relief it was to hear our new Attorney General-designee Eric Holder finally acknowledge on behalf of the United States Government what we all know to be true: that yes, ``waterboarding is torture.''

As we move forward, President Obama is wise to ``reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals''--but moving beyond this framework does not mean that this administration will not face real and difficult choices about how best to keep Americans safe while honoring our values.

The American people should know that closing Guantanamo will not be easy. Conceived to be outside law, reclaiming the prison and its inhabitants
into our legal system from what Vice President Cheney called ``the dark side'' will be an enormous challenge and a thicket of thorny legal and policy issues.

However, we are already seeing the international system reorganize itself around an America that is willing to be a moral leader. Countries such as Portugal and Ireland have made welcome offers to join Albania in resettling detainees who cannot be returned to their home countries. Already we are seeing the fruits of a good-faith effort with our allies.

Still, it will take time and effort to overcome numerous hurdles. The new administration faces tough challenges handed over from the previous administration. Looming questions must be addressed about the inadmissibility of evidence improperly coerced. It is difficult or impossible in some cases to return detainee s--including many cleared for departure--who would face torture or worse in their home countries; and we already know that some released from Guantanamo have returned to the battlefield. In some cases we simply lack evidence to charge men we know to be extremely dangerous and threatening to the American people. And we owe it to those we believe made grave mistakes to acknowledge the urgency of the moment they inherited, the sacred responsibility to protect American lives, which they strove to honor, and the h umbling reality that there are no easy answers when it comes to such life-and-death matters.

But the American story is one of perfectibility and striving for ever-greater fidelity to our ideals--it is a journey from Colony to Republic, from slavery to freedom, from sexism to suffrage, from stark poverty to shared prosperity. The President himself famously said, ``the union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.''

It is true that today we face unprecedented, unorthodox, and vastly destructive enemies that respect neither borders nor rules of war. But it is equally true that we have done so before. This is not the first new challenge America has evolved to meet. Sometimes that evolution requires us to admit mistakes, learn from them and grow as a nation. Our progress in response to new threats and new fears has been halting but real, and our setbacks have always been followed by a strong corrective impulse. The desire to do better has always been a core part of America's greatness.

Today Barack Obama and his administration wrote a new chapter in that old story. I commend them and look forward to helping them make good on their goals, keep Americans safe, and usher in a new era of America's moral leadership.

Today's Executive orders were a promising sign of things to come--America will again honor the values that make us strong.

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