The Fall of Greg Craig

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 2:42 PM EST

Time has an interesting tick-tock this week about Greg Craig, the White House lawyer tasked with dismantling Bush-era interrogation and detention policies.  At first, Obama was on board with Craig's plans.  Then, reality set in.  Here he is deciding whether to release a set of "torture memos" last spring:

Obama arrived at [Rahm] Emanuel's office a few minutes later, took off his windbreaker and sat down at a table lined with about a dozen national-security and political advisers. He asked each to state a position and then convened an impromptu debate, selecting Craig and McDonough to argue opposing sides. Craig deployed one of Obama's own moral arguments: that releasing the memos "was consistent with taking a high road" and was "sensitive to our values and our traditions as well as the rule of law." Obama paused, then decided in favor of Craig, dictating a detailed statement explaining his position that would be released the next day.

But for Craig, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Four days later, former Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Obama on Fox News Channel for dismantling the policies he and Bush had put in place to keep the country safe. More significant was the reaction within Obama's camp. Democratic pollsters charted a disturbing trend: a drop in Obama's support among independents, driven in part by national-security issues. Emanuel quietly delegated his aides to get more deeply involved in the process. Damaged by the episode, Craig was about to suffer his first big setback.

Obama repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, but Guantánamo proved much easier to say than to do....But inside the White House, the mood had changed amid the furor over the release of the torture memos in April. McDonough and other NSC advisers assembled in the Oval Office to discuss it. Obama raised questions about security — were the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on board? Separately, his legislative-affairs staff warned of stiff congressional resistance — and Republicans responded on cue. Word of the plan leaked on April 24, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell launched three weeks of near daily attacks on the idea of letting the Uighurs loose in the U.S. Dick Durbin, Obama's mentor and the Democrats' No. 2 in the Senate, called the White House asking for ammunition to fight back against McConnell and the Republicans. "What's our plan?" Durbin asked.

....Obama needed to regain control quickly, and he started by jettisoning liberal positions he had been prepared to accept — and had even okayed — just weeks earlier. First to go was the release of the pictures of detainee abuse. Days later, Obama sided against Craig again, ending the suspension of Bush's extrajudicial military commissions. The following week, Obama pre-empted an ongoing debate among his national-security team and embraced one of the most controversial of Bush's positions: the holding of detainees without charges or trial, something he had promised during the campaign to reject.

The whole piece is worth a read.

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