Obama's Gitmo Blame Game

Greg Craig being set-up as fall guy, sources say

By Josh Gerstein
|  Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009  |  Updated 4:15 AM PDT
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Greg Craig is getting the blame for Obama's failed strategy to shutter Guantanamo by January.

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Greg Craig, the top in-house lawyer for President Barack Obama, is getting the blame for botching the strategy to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison by January — so much so that he’s expected to leave the White House in short order.

But sources familiar with the process believe Craig is being set-up as the fall guy and say the blame for missing the deadline extends well beyond him.

Instead, it was a widespread breakdown on the political, legislative, policy and planning fronts that contributed to what is shaping up as one of Obama’s most high-profile setbacks, these people say.

The White House misread the congressional mood – as it found out abruptly in May, when the Senate voted 90-6 against funds for closing the base after Republicans stoked fears about bringing prisoners to the U.S. The House also went on record last week opposing bringing Gitmo detainees here.

The White House misread the public mood – as roughly half of Americans surveyed say they disagree with Obama’s approach. A strong element of NIMBY-ism permeates those results, as Americans say they don’t want the prisoners in their backyards.

But most of all Obama’s aides mistook that political consensus from the campaign trail for a deep commitment in Washington to do whatever it takes to close the prison.

“The administration came in reading there to be wide support for closing Guantanamo at home and abroad, and I think it misread that attitude,” said Matthew Waxman, a Columbia law professor who held Defense and State Department positions on detainee policy. “In general, they were right….but there was very little willingness to accept the costs and risks of getting it done.”

The White House declined to make Craig available for an interview, or discuss the Gitmo deliberations in detail, but several allies and even some critics scoffed at suggestions that Craig bears the main responsibility for the missteps.

“This clearly was a decision that had the full support of the entire national security team,” said Ken Gude, who tracks Guantanamo issues for the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “It’s typical Washington that someone has their head on the chopping block, but it’s ridiculous that it’s Craig.”

“The implication that this was the brainchild of the White House counsel is not really credible,” said Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First.

When Obama signed a series of executive orders on Guantanamo during his second full day in office, what grabbed attention was not his promise to close the prison but his pledge to do it within one year.

During the presidential campaign, Obama talked almost daily about closing Guantanamo, but he rarely offered a timeline. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), spoke in a far greater specificity, proposing to move the Gitmo prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas.

However, back in July 2007, Obama co-sponsored an amendment offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that called for Guantanamo to close within a year. Obama’s primary rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was also a co-sponsor.

Some Bush administration officials contend that the one-year timeline was driven by a naïveté on the part of Obama’s aides.

“To a certain extent, they had drunk a lot of the far-left Kool-aid: that everybody, or most people, at Guantanamo were innocent and shouldn’t be there, and the Bush administration was not working very hard to resolve these issues, and that the issues were fairly easy to resolve once adults who were really committed to doing something about it in charge,” said one Bush official who met with Obama’s aides during the transition on Gitmo. “It became clear to me they had not really done their homework on the details.”

But even back on Jan. 22, 2009, the same day Obama signed the orders, Craig acknowledged some of the difficulties involved – including that some of the detainees can never be tried, a problem Craig called “difficult” and “most controversial.”

 

Now Obama’s decision to set a one-year deadline is being widely second-guessed. Craig supported the idea – and Craig’s allies say that a deadline was needed to persuade foreign governments that Obama was serious. They note that President George W. Bush talked on at least eight occasions about his desire to close Guantanamo – and left office with 250 prisoners there.

“Simply reasserting the intention to close Guantanamo would not have been sufficient in the international community,” Gude said. “They had to have a firm date and they had to have a timeline.”

Gude had advocated an 18-month timeline to “build in a cushion” but he said the only real mistakes the White House made involved failing to anticipate the resistance in Congress – particularly surrounding the Senate’s sharp rejection of Obama’s $80 million request to close Gitmo.

“They made that request without much supporting information and opened the door for Republicans in Congress to make it a Congressional issue and they did it very successfully,” Gude said. “The White House didn’t have a plan to support Democrats who were willing to back up their proposal and it all fell apart.”

Craig’s backers contend that, if that was the White House’s key misjudgment, other top officials share responsibility for the breakdown.

“It seems very unlikely to me that Greg Craig, by himself, engineered a DOD appropriations request,” one lawyer close to Craig said.

In retrospect, there were early signs of possible trouble ahead. Within hours of Obama signing the orders, McCain warned of a backlash and said the time frame the president set out would be “very difficult” to achieve.

A McCain adviser said the Obama team should have known. “I don’t think they realized how much heat McCain took from conservatives” during the GOP primary, said the aide, who asked not to be named. “Had they been aware of that I don’t think they would have handled it this way…..It shouldn’t have surprised anybody.”

Today, the National Security Council and Obama senior adviser Pete Rouse are effectively in charge of closing Gitmo, though Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied Craig had been stripped of his responsibilities on the prison. “There are number of people that are working on it, Greg being one of them,” Gibbs said.

A review of Guantanamo prisoners is also nearly complete, with about 80 detainees up for release and State Department envoy Dan Fried lining up places to receive them.

“Our friends and allies have accepted or agreed to accept more than 30 of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be sent home due to humane treatment concerns, and are seriously considering taking others,” said a White House official who asked not to be named.

But it’s been slow. Obama’s administration has transferred 17 Guantanamo prisoners to other countries so far – compared to 19 by the Bush administration in the first nine months of 2008.

Obama aides have blamed the delays on disarray in government files about the detainees, but several former officials said that is not directly linked to the thorniest questions such as where to locate detainees in the U.S. “Those issues that have been kicked down the road are by far the hardest,” Waxman said.

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