Guantanamo Policy Forces Change At White House
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
Two days after President Obama took office, he issued an executive order. It mandated the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. But the job has been more difficult than many had expected and the process has taken its toll inside the White House.
I'm joined now by NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
And Nina, let's begin with the fact that this has been a messy, messy process; the White House has confirmed that Mr. Obama's counsel, Greg Craig, is no longer the point man on closing Gitmo.
NINA TOTENBERG: Yes. The man in charge now is senior White House advisor Peter Rouse, one of the few gray-haired sages there, and a guy with long Capitol Hill experience, including as chief of staff to then-Senator Barack Obama. He's being aided and abetted by David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's political amanuensis.
Now, you can look at this as evidence that the White House counsel, Greg Craig, has been cut out. Or, as one White House official put it to me today, what this means is that Guantanamo has moved from a legal issue to a political issue.
BRAND: And what do you mean by that?
TOTENBERG: Look, Guantanamo is a symbol of a lot of things, from the terror threat to compliance with international treaties and due process of law. And closing it has turned out to be harder than many people thought for a lot of reasons; some of them political, some of them not.
BRAND: Okay, Nina. Let's start with the not.
TOTENBERG: Well, the not is, for example, that the Obamaites thought that they would come into office and that there would be a file on each detainee, and that they could review those files with fresh eyes. Instead, in many cases, there were no files. They have been - the information wasn't centralized. It was all over the place so it took months to get the stuff in place just to review. I think you can lay the blame for that on the Bush administration, which - Lord knows - had plenty of time.
What is seen as the Obama administration's fault is that the White House let Congress get ahead of it on this; didn't brief Democrats, didn't have a plan in place before the White House announced the closing.
The bottom line was that, not just Republicans, but Democrats were yelling bloody murder that U.S. citizens would be in danger and passing legislation, barring the transfer of detainees to the United States. It was humiliating for the White House.
And to cite just one way that the White House could have dealt with this was to have picked a single place in the United States and said, look, this is where these guys will be transferred. And then all the members of Congress from everywhere else would have said, okay, let them be there and they wouldn't have yelled. And that pretty much has happened now - they've picked one place but it took awfully long.
BRAND: Mm-hmm. And so there's a lot of talk now that the Obama administration should never have set that deadline for closing Gitmo in the first place.
TOTENBERG: Well, I talked today to lots of folks in the administration and they think this is just a cheap shot. Obama ran promising to close Gitmo. And as one White House source told me, everyone who is sitting in that room, when we made this decision to close the base within a year, understood that we likely would not make the deadline. We might be six months late. But if we didn't set a deadline, I guarantee you, said this source, that we would have been six years late. That was the policy of the Bush administration, he said. We'll close Guantanamo sometime.
BRAND: And quickly now, let's talk for a minute about Greg Craig and reports that have persisted for a long time that he's really being forced out of his job.
TOTENBERG: Well, he hasn't gone yet and it's clear that he and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel are, shall we say, not close.
TOTENBERG: And the fact that this story broke today was leaked to The Washington Post that Craig was being removed, I think that's evidence of that. That's not to say that Craig's performance has been flawless. There are critics everywhere on everything and even his most loyal defenders admit some of the criticism is justified.
But as one White House source told me today, Craig's job is to deal with an endless series of no-win propositions. He's the guy who gets the most unpleasant jobs.
BRAND: NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, thank you.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
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