White House Counsel Vets Nominees For Top Jobs

White House Counsel Greg Craig's job is to be the guy who makes things run so smoothly, you never hear about him. Craig's office checks the legality of whatever the White House is planning, including national security policies. President Obama recently asked Craig to take charge of vetting administration nominees for top jobs, because of some stumbles in the process.

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There is not so much science and a lot of art instead to what a lawyer does in the White House. The job is to try blend the law with smart politics and that is the task of the man we'll hear about next. Greg Craig is President Obama's White House Counsel. He's built a stable of 22 lawyers to handle a range of duties and recently the president added some more. After some embarrassing mistakes were made in vetting administration appointees, Craig was put in charge of the process. Here's NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: At 63, Greg Craig has white hair, a baby face, and a resume perfect for his new job. He's the quintessential Washington insider who served five years as top foreign policy advisor to Senator Edward Kennedy and later as a top aid to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In between, as a lawyer in private practice, he represented everyone from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to the father of Cuban exile Elian Gonzalez.

As a trial lawyer, he quarterbacked President Clinton's defense in impeachment proceedings, and a decade earlier, defended on insanity grounds, the man who shot President Reagan. Now at the White House, Craig is the gatekeeper for questions that involve the law and national security. He is not, he says pointedly, a rubber stamper.

Mr. GREG CRAIG (White House Counsel): When you ask what is going to be different about this White House counsel's office, I would say that we're gonna be much more engaged in national security issues.

TOTENBERG: As an example, Craig notes that his office coordinated and developed the national security executive orders issued in the first days of the administration, executive order which mandate a new review of each detainees case at Guantanamo, the closure of the detention facility within a year, and new rules for interrogation of any detained in U.S. custody.

Mr. CRAIG: It involved an enormous pain-staking iterative process where we talked to people that were engaged in the policies. For example, we spent a good deal of time with those people who are responsible for interrogations to determine what kind of impact it would have if we did X, Y, or Z.

TOTENBERG: Drafting the executive orders, he notes, required a detailed understanding of the Geneva Conventions, the anti-torture statutes, as well as the views and experience of various departments from State and Defense to the CIA. Since 9/11, and even before, many of the men and women who've come into top executive department jobs have expressed shock and even consternation at the dangerous world that they're world that they're confronted with in intelligence briefings. Here, for example, is Michael Mukasey, a man who as a federal judge presided over important terrorism trials before he became attorney general.

Mr. MICHAEL MUKASEY (Former federal judge and attorney general): I thought I was knowledgeable. Compared to what I knew before, it is enormously dangerous. It is way beyond anything that I knew or believed.

TOTENBERG: Greg Craig betrays none of that surprise.

Mr. CRAIG: Is it scary? You know, I don't think it's beyond what I expected.

TOTENBERG: Craig has been traveling in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the horn of Africa since he worked for Senator Kennedy in the 1980s, when he often went to refugee camps, and again when he worked in the state department.

Mr. CRAIG: I think having been there, and seen the people, and been in the streets of those locations, and talked to some of the folks there, you get a sense of the turbulence and the turmoil and the level of violence that just is below the surface of those societies and how careful we have to be in handling them.

TOTENBERG: These are the areas, he says, where the 9/11 attacks were plotted, where anti-American hostility is now thriving and new recruits are being trained. The tragedy, he says is that the U.S. got distracted by Iraq. There are important national security questions piling up for the new administration including a major case in the Supreme Court testing the power to designate and detain enemy combatants in the U.S. without trial. Civil libertarians have been disappointed lately, by the administration's refusal to abandon some positions taken by the Bush administration, while officials from administrations past have cautioned against hurky jerky changes in government court positions.

At the same time, the White House Counsel's office has to iron out kinks in the Obama administration's new ethics rules, supervise the vetting for proposed administration office holders, and screen and get the roll out ready for a new slate of judicial nominations expected soon. Oh yes, and then there's the economic crisis and the legal questions it poses.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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