Former White House Counsel Greg Craig recounts struggle over Guantanamo


Greg Craig

“When you have a lawyer for a client, it’s the most difficult experience, and I had the best lawyer in America as my client,” said Greg Craig, the first White House Counsel to President Barack Obama ’91. The former administration official sat down with Prof. Charles Ogletree ‘78 at Harvard Law School on April 6 to discuss the Obama White House’s accomplishments and his career in public service.

“The White House is a remarkable place to work,” Craig continued, “and you don’t ever forget the significance of working so close to the President of the United States. At the same time, it is also very difficult.”

Craig’s career as a litigator began at Washington based Williams & Connolly, where he defended attempted-assassin John Hinckley, Jr., but he has gone in and out of public service numerous times, working for key Washington figures like Senator Edward Kennedy, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and President Bill Clinton, whose impeachment defense he coordinated.

Despite his previous service in the Clinton administration, Craig was an early supporter of Obama, joining his campaign as early as 2006 and bringing with him the wealth of foreign policy experience he gained under Senator Kennedy and at the Department of State. He said that he found Obama’s early public appearances “transformative” and recognized his potential as a presidential candidate after his Robert F. Kennedy Award speech in 2005.

Craig departed the White House in January of this year due to growing concern over the handling of the administration’s policy regarding the detention of combatants at Guantanamo Bay. “Trying to unwind the Bush Policies while trying to manage two wars was not easy,” said Craig during his appearance at HLS.

Tension apparently mounted between Craig and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as Craig’s desire to push for decommissioning the facility came in conflict with other priorities on the President’s agenda. Craig said that Rahm Emanuel used the analogy of a crowded airport to illustrate the difficulty of the situation. “We are trying to bring in two huge 747s [the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] at the same time we are trying to reform our national health care system, and right in the middle you want to send up a flock of Canadian geese, which is Guantanamo, which could take down one of those 747s,” the Chief of Staff reportedly said.

Aside from the delays in the Guantanamo closure, Craig said that the Obama administration has achieved an impressive measure of change in its first year, with particular examples including the abolition of enhanced interrogation, the shutdown of CIA black sites, the completion of a full review of detention policy, the release of previously confidential memos, a reevaluation of the executive use of the state secret doctrine, and the announcement of an intention to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

He expressed regret that the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to seek trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in Article III courts has been framed as a civil liberties issue, pointing to the proven efficiency of government prosecutors, federal judges, and criminal procedure rules as a sure means of obtaining solid convictions. Craig warned that military tribunals have suffered from a debilitating effort to accommodate the procedural needs of defendants and remain an uncertain venue that may be subject to reversal on appeal. He also noted that support for military commissions is particularly surprising in light of the fact that they are not allowed to sentence detainees to capital punishment. “If you care about capital punishment for KSM and these individuals, then you would support what Eric Holder recommended.”

Craig also identified some of the logistical challenges that will make the closure of Guantanamo a difficult issue. He said that of the approximately 240 remaining detainees, some 40-45 will be prosecuted, another 40-50 are dangerous individuals who will be held indefinitely, many of those remaining will be transferred or released. But one of the biggest problems at the present moment is determining the proper course of action with respect to the 98 Yemeni detainees. “People do not want to send them back to Yemen, although Yemen would take them,” said Craig. “Until we solve the problem of what to do with the Yemenis, it is going to be very hard to close down Guantanamo.”

Craig anticipates that the plan to transfer inmates to Thomson prison has potential, but that after the most recent upgrades to the Guantanamo facility, human rights advocates are concerned that conditions could actually be worse at the Illinois facility. “Once we go to Congress to get appropriations for Thomson, it opens up negotiations about Guantanamo,” the former White House Counsel said.

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