The Cable

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Greg Craig, Gitmo fall guy

Gitmo watchers who’ve paid close attention to the Obama administration’s troubled effort to close the Cuba prison were surprised by a startling article in the Washington Post today in which White House Counsel Greg Craig says he basically mishandled the effort to close Guantánamo and which quotes sources as claiming he may leave the White ...

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Gitmo watchers who've paid close attention to the Obama administration's troubled effort to close the Cuba prison were surprised by a startling article in the Washington Post today in which White House Counsel Greg Craig says he basically mishandled the effort to close Guantánamo and which quotes sources as claiming he may leave the White House if an overseas appointment for him can be found.

Several advocates of closing the prison -- as Obama pledged to do within one year as one of his first acts as president -- said Craig is being made the fall guy for a lack of attention across the senior levels of the government, combined with the unwillingness of congressional Democrats to stand behind the plan to close the prison.

Gitmo watchers who’ve paid close attention to the Obama administration’s troubled effort to close the Cuba prison were surprised by a startling article in the Washington Post today in which White House Counsel Greg Craig says he basically mishandled the effort to close Guantánamo and which quotes sources as claiming he may leave the White House if an overseas appointment for him can be found.

Several advocates of closing the prison — as Obama pledged to do within one year as one of his first acts as president — said Craig is being made the fall guy for a lack of attention across the senior levels of the government, combined with the unwillingness of congressional Democrats to stand behind the plan to close the prison.

“I think it’s bizarre to blame Greg Craig for Guantánamo and whatever challenges they faced in closing it,” said Ken Gude, Guantánamo expert at the Center for American Progress.

The administration got off to a slow start and then got caught flat-footed when GOP senators and former Vice President Dick Cheney teamed up to spread the idea that closing the prison would lead to terrorists being released in American communities. And the administration never coordinated with congressional allies to lay the needed groundwork.

“To blame Craig because there was no legislative strategy in the White House strikes a lot of us as unfair and odd,” said Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The other main claim in the article, namely that the Obama administration couldn’t meet its own timeline because the Bush administration left the files on the 226 prisoners in Guantánamo in disarray, is true, but also not the real reason behind the strategy failure, she said.

The administration’s real failure was in the spring – around April and May — when the Republicans decided to make the Guantánamo issue their focus and congressional Democrats, feeling abandoned by the White House, yielded the debate.

Virginia Democratic Rep.  James Moran, who led a one-man charge to counter GOP’s Guantánamo campaign, said there were many Obama officials to blame in an interview with The Cable.

“Greg Craig was not the person responsible for the delay on the Guantanamo plan,” said Moran. “He is a professional; he was given a lot to do, little backup, and apparently virtually no information on the background of the detainees and the kind of talking points that were needed.”

Congress was stonewalled, not just by Craig, but by the Defense Department and Justice Department as well.

“Those of us on the Hill who wanted to defend the administration’s policy because we knew we had the facts on our side got no back up, no support, no information,” Moran said, speculating that the Obama team simply didn’t want to spend political capital on the issue.

That became clear to Moran and others in Congress in May, when the war funding bill was moving through Congress and Republicans took to the airwaves to decry the plan to shudder the prison. “We were at the Alamo, and the cavalry was galloping in the other direction,” said Moran, “I think it was a political decision. I don’t know who made it, but I very much doubt it was Greg Craig.”

Other key appropriators who were trying to fund the effort, such as defense subcommittee chairman Jack Murtha, D-PA, and Appropriations chairman David Obey, D-WI, couldn’t and wouldn’t fight the Republican machine without Obama’s help.

“They talked to the White House and the White House wasn’t willing to stand alongside them,” said Moran. The thinking among Democrats was, “If we can’t take advantage of Obama’s credibility on this issue, we probably are not going win.”

Now the administration is trying to press the reset button on Guantánamo, but Moran argued the damage is done and it is now nearly impossible to sell the idea of moving the prisoners to U.S. soil.

“This is their first major fuck up, and it’s an enormous fuckup, because now that you’ve lost ground you’re not going to be able to recover it,” said Moran.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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