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President Obama And The Slow Process Of Closing Guantanamo

September 25, 2009

There is no way not to be concerned about the news reported in the Washington Post today of what seems to be a desire to get a ‘political fix’ (my words concerning Pete Rouse) instead of the needed closing of Guantanamo.  There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama wants this placed closed, and for the reasons which are clear to all who have followed this source of concern.  Namely, Guantanamo is a source of world-wide disgust that proves to be a recruitment tool for those who use terrorism as a weapon.  But when a less than steady strategy was applied to closing Guantanamo in the first weeks of this Administration it allowed opponents of the plan to wrestle public opinion away from doing what is sound foreign policy.  Therefore we are left with the news today that is not welcomed here.

“With four months left to meet its self-imposed deadline for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Obama administration is working to recover from missteps that have put officials behind schedule and left them struggling to win the cooperation of Congress. … To address these setbacks, the administration has shifted its leadership team on the issue. White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig, who initially guided the effort to close the prison and who was an advocate of setting the deadline, is no longer in charge of the project, two senior administration officials said this week.

“Craig said Thursday that some of his early assumptions were based on miscalculations, in part because Bush administration officials and senior Republicans in Congress had spoken publicly about closing the facility. “I thought there was, in fact, and I may have been wrong, a broad consensus about the importance to our national security objectives to close Guantanamo and how keeping Guantanamo open actually did damage to our national security objectives,” he said. In May, one of the senior officials said, Obama tapped Pete Rouse — a top adviser and former congressional aide who is not an expert on national security but is often called in to fix significant problems — to oversee the process. Senior adviser David Axelrod and deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer were brought in to craft a more effective message around detainee policy, the official said. ‘It was never going to be easy, but we have worked through some of the early challenges and are on a strong course,’ Pfeiffer said.

“Three administration officials said they expect Craig to leave his current post in the near future, and one said he is on the short list for a seat on the bench or a diplomatic position. Craig has long made clear his desire to be involved in foreign policy, but he declined to comment on his plans. Several White House officials remain involved in Guantanamo Bay, including Thomas E. Donilon, the deputy national security adviser; John O. Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser; and David Rapallo, an official on the National Security Council. … Before the election, Craig met privately with a group of top national security lawyers who had served in Democratic and Republican administrations to discuss Guantanamo Bay. During the transition, he met with members of the outgoing administration, some of whom warned him against issuing a deadline to close the facility without first finding alternative locations for the prisoners.

“Although the move was approved by all of Obama’s senior advisers and, ultimately, the president himself, the deadline came at the suggestion of Craig, according to two senior government officials involved in the process. Craig declined to comment on internal discussions. Craig oversaw the drafting of the executive order that set Jan. 22, 2010, as the date by which the prison must be closed. ‘It seemed like a bold move at the time, to lay out a time frame that to us seemed sufficient to meet the goal,’ one senior official said. ‘In retrospect, it invited a fight with the Hill and left us constantly looking at the clock.’ ‘The entire civil service counseled him not to set a deadline’ to close Guantanamo, according to one senior government lawyer.”

A senior administration official told The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder: “Blaming Greg for any problems we may have is patently unfair. That’s not how the president, Rahm, or any other senior staff feel.”

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