Top White House lawyer Greg Craig quitting

The White House’s top lawyer is returning to private practice and being replaced by a longtime adviser to Barack Obama.

White House counsel Greg Craig, who’s leaving in early January, has been the subject of repeated questions about his future since late summer. Centered on talk that Obama’s promise to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison by January had gone awry under Craig’s leadership, the questions were settled Friday when the White House announced Craig’s departure.

It was the highest-ranking resignation so far in Obama’s 10-month presidency, and became public just as the president was arriving in Asia for a weeklong tour. It also came just hours before Attorney General Eric Holder was set to announce that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be sent to New York to face trial in a civilian federal court, while five other suspects will be prosecuted in military commissions. This was revealed to The Associated Press by an Obama administration official earlier Friday.

Craig also oversaw the president’s revamping of U.S. policy on terrorism interrogations and detentions, including a ban on torture, and was at the center of administration moves to release many documents relating to the treatment of terror suspects under the Bush administration. He also was instrumental in the White House’s decision to resist the release of photos of abuse of detainees overseas by U.S. personnel. All those decisions earned Obama considerable criticism, some from the right and some from the left.

Obama issued a statement praising Craig as a trusted adviser who took on numerous difficult challenges, including the selection and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“I’m indebted to Greg not only for leading the counsel’s office but for his many decades of service to this country as well. He has been a huge asset in the White House, and he will be missed,” the president said. “I will continue to call on him for advice in the years ahead.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Craig’s departure was not due to any dissatisfaction with his handling of Guantanamo policy. Craig was known to have told Obama at the outset that he didn’t want to serve in the counsel role for more than a year.

Still, Craig’s resignation falls more than two months short of that milestone. It had been presumed that he would move from the counsel’s office to another prestigious job, such as an ambassadorship or judicial posting, but the White House statement mentioned only his return to private legal work.

“It has been a busy first year, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it,” Craig wrote in his resignation letter to Obama.

Bob Bauer, who was general counsel on Obama’s presidential campaign and a longtime adviser to Obama, has agreed to take Craig’s place. He is to take over as White House counsel by the end of the year.

In the first sign of the coming shake-up in Obama’s legal team, Craig’s deputy, Cassandra Butts, was moved last week out of that job to be senior adviser at Millennium Challenge Corporation, an aid program for developing countries that was created under the Bush administration.

Craig is perhaps best known for his work in a previous White House, as former President Bill Clinton’s chief defender during his 1998 Senate impeachment trial. Later, Craig became one of the earliest Clinton allies to sign on to Obama’s presidential campaign, during the Democratic primaries against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Craig has taken the blame for the White House’s failure to predict and effectively manage the political dimension of closing Guantanamo, especially the extremely charged question of where to move the detainees now held in the military run prison in Cuba. Democratic and Republican lawmakers balked at the idea of transferring detainees into U.S. prisons.

Under GOP pressure, Congress has banned the release of any detainee into the U.S. Democrats, however, have turned back Republican efforts to bar transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the country to face trial.

The process of persuading other nations to take some Guantanamo detainees also has been painstakingly slow. The Obama administration also was taken aback at the amount of work required to put together formerly nonexistent evidence and intelligence files on each Guantanamo detainee. About 220 still remain at the facility, which has caused widespread criticism of the U.S. around the globe.

As a result, the administration admitted some time ago that it will most likely not meet Obama’s January deadline for closing the prison.

In recent weeks, however, the prison-closing process has begun to pick up some steam.

Last month, Obama signed a defense policy bill that brought back but revamped Bush-era military trials for terror suspects. The revised military commissions give new legal rights to accused terrorists.

Still to come is the administration’s choice of which U.S. prison will house the handful of detainees considered too dangerous to release to another country or put on trial.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.