“The one thing we could never figure out is who was in charge of it,” said a senior Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, whose boss, a senator, was initially supportive of the goal of closing Guantanamo. “Everybody seemed to have a piece of it, but nobody was in charge of it.”
It was often assumed on the Hill and elsewhere that White House counsel Gregory B. Craig was in charge, but he rejected that characterization in an interview and said he was pushing the boundaries of his office to be as involved as he was.
“There was a real serious problem of coordination in this whole thing,” Craig said. “No one was coordinating.”
The White House, often without much internal deliberation, retreated time and again in the face of political opposition.
“At each turn, when faced with congressional opposition, the instinct was to back off, and the result was not what the White House hoped,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Guantanamo policy. “We kept retreating, and the result was more pressure to retreat more.”
Executive order: One year till closure
On Obama’s inauguration night, when the new administration instructed military prosecutors to seek the suspension of all proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, defense lawyers at the base formed a boisterous conga line.
“Rule of law, baby!” they shouted.
The celebrations, though, were short-lived.
While the Pentagon had plans to close the detention center on the books for several years, the logistics of finding a replacement facility were difficult, to say nothing of the politics. Additionally, the legal process by which Guantanamo would be emptied presented formidable challenges.
The executive order signed by Obama established a task force to review the case of every detainee — there were 241 when he took office — and recommend what should happen to them. But the issue proved highly controversial.
The president’s liberal base, as well as civil liberties groups, had long pressed for a system by which detainees would be prosecuted or transferred out, ending indefinite military detention and jettisoning military commissions in favor of federal courts, also called Article III courts.
But the executive order did not rule out military commissions.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, immediately wondered about “ambiguities . . . regarding the treatment of certain detainees that could either be the result of the swiftness with which these orders were issued or ambivalence within the Obama administration.”