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.”
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