Fending off criticism from human-rights and civil-rights groups at a private White House meeting Wednesday, a frustrated President Obama complained about the "mess" he'd been left by his predecessor.
The exchange came during an hour-and-15-minute "off the record" session in the White House cabinet room that highlighted growing tensions between the president and his liberal base. While the White House session was billed as an effort by the president to listen to his critics on the left, some of them left disappointed.
According to three sources who attended the meeting, Obama reiterated his intention to retain a version of the military-tribunal system established to try terror detainees and said his administration will likely end up adopting some form of "indefinite detention" policy to justify holding some selected suspects without trial. Still, Obama brusquely rejected suggestions by some of those present that, in doing so, he was adopting key tenets of Bush-era policies considered unacceptable by his liberal supporters.
"It doesn't help to equate me to Bush," Obama said, arguing that such comparisons overlook important differences between the two administrations' policies, according to several sources attending the meeting.
The sources, all of whom asked not to be identified because of the White House insistence that the meeting was private, also said Attorney General Eric Holder sat by silently while the president curtly dismissed the idea that his Justice Department should criminally prosecute at least one Bush administration official for torture, if only as a symbolic move to demonstrate that actions such as waterboarding will never be tolerated again.
While declining to talk about any of the specific back-and-forth, American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero told NEWSWEEK he was not happy about much of what he heard during the meeting. Obama showed a "remarkable command" of the issues, Romero said. But, he added, "it is disappointing that he appears poised to continue with many of the Bush policies that have ended in failure. If he goes down that track, President Obama will find himself in the same legal morass that swallowed up George Bush."
The session was held even as the Senate was voting by an overwhelming margin to reject the administration's request for funds necessary to shut down Guantánamo. The vote was a stunning setback for the president, potentially undermining his vow to shut down the detention facility by the end of the year. The messy split between the White House and Congress sparked complaints among some Democrats that the administration had mishandled the issue, ceding ground to Republican critics like former vice president Dick Cheney. "The Republicans smell blood in the water on this," said one Democratic Senate aide.
Obama will seek to regain control of the debate with a major speech at the National Archives Thursday, in which aides say he will lay out a broad vision for overhauling Bush-era counterterrorism policies while still protecting national security. But the speech is expected to provide few details about how precisely the president plans to proceed with closing Guantánamo or deal with the more than 240 detainees still at the facility, according to sources familiar with the address.
While the criticism from Cheney and other Republicans has been a constant in the Washington media, Wednesday's meeting underscores how worried the White House is about critics closer to home. Administration officials organized the session just a few days ago, summoning the leaders of groups such as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU, as well as several liberal law professors. As a sign of how seriously the White House took the matter, just about all of Obama's senior staff were there, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, White House counsel Gregory Craig, senior adviser David Axelrod and Holder.
But sources say Obama did all the talking, starting the meeting with a 10- to -15-minute discourse on his attempts to "institutionally" overhaul the Bush counterterror agenda by establishing clear policies and guidelines based on the rule of law and not dependent on the individual judgment of him or any other future president. It was at that point, according to two sources in attendance, that Obama talked about inheriting "a mess" from the prior administration. Obama also appeared frustrated by the growing criticism directed at him over the Guantánamo issue, two of those present said.
"He was worried about the theoretical possibility of people being released [from Guantánamo] and then committing terrorist acts," one of those present said. "He talked about what would happen if he released somebody and then they committed a terrorist act. He wants to keep open the option of keeping people in detention with trial."
While some recent press reports have suggested the White House is considering seeking legislation that would specifically authorize the president to hold terror suspects captured abroad without trial—a move that would be sure to spark enormous controversy—some of those attending the Wednesday meeting believe Obama will instead seek to persuade the courts to hold combatants indefinitely under the laws of war. That distinction offered little solace for attendees from human-rights and civil-liberties groups. One of them warned that, once Obama moves in that direction, Bush's policies "would become his own"—a suggestion that displeased the president and prompted him to comment that it was "not helpful" to compare him to Bush, another source said.
Another issue raised at the meeting was the idea of a "truth commission" to investigate Bush-era policies. Obama didn't completely reject the idea, two sources said, but instead complained that current congressional investigations into such issues were too time-consuming for key members of his administration. Looking directly at Holder, the president reportedly said the attorney general was already spending too much time dealing with litigation related to Bush-administration policies. "He was worried that his people would be consumed with responding to these things," said one of those present. "He said his staff was stretched very thin."
It was at that point, toward the end of the meeting, that one attendee raised the idea of criminal prosecution of at least one Bush-era official, if only as a symbolic gesture. Obama dismissed the idea, several of those in attendance said, making it clear that he had no interest in such an investigation. Holder—whose department is supposed to make the call on criminal prosecutions—reportedly said nothing.
At another point, Obama surprised some of those present by suggesting that his aides had received poll results showing that the American people were still behind him on national security and the war on terror. Obama told the group that the poll showed "50 percent believe Obama is doing more to protect security than Bush had," one source present said. Only 25 percent of those polled thought Bush had done more to protect security, according to the figures cited by Obama, the source added.
Asked about the poll, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said the White House does not conduct polls. Pressed on where the figures the president cited came from, LaBolt said the White House does not normally comment on what takes place in private meetings.