President Barack Obama plans an all-out push for health care reform legislation after Labor Day — but he is likely to find Congress and the media distracted by a series of thorny national security problems, including Guantanamo and Iran, which are set to come roaring back onto the national agenda.
The collection of issues present a political minefield where a false step could send the right or the left into an uproar just as Obama is trying to cobble together a coalition to make a deal on health care reform that has eluded several of his predecessors.
A misstep on Guantanamo, or an announcement of the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe interrogation abuses and conservatives, is likely to strike up such a din that Obama’s health care message could be drowned out. A move to boost troops in Afghanistan or establish new rules for an elite interrogation unit and liberals already steamed at signs of compromise on health care could go into revolt.
Speaking at a summit meeting in Mexico last week, Obama seemed to acknowledge the delicate timing of his legislative agenda this fall, though he made no mention of the national security issues certain to intrude.
“I've got a lot on my plate, and it's very important for us to sequence these big initiatives in a way where they don't all just crash at the same time,” Obama said.
Here are five national-security-related headaches that Obama faces in the coming weeks:
A Guantanamo showdown looms
With the deadline looming for Obama’s self-imposed promise to close Guantanamo in January, the White House has little choice but to tackle the issue in September or soon after, regardless of the distraction it may pose.
“They have to deal with it,” said one Republican congressional aide involved with the White House in talks over the issue. “This is all going to play back out in September.”
Selling Congress on the Guantanamo policy, whatever it is, will requires some deft maneuvering — fancy legislative footwork that the White House badly botched earlier this year, resulting in a 90-6 Senate vote in May against bringing prisoners to the U.S. After that vote, the White House agreed to a face-saving compromise that bars release of Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S. and makes the administration jump through hoops before bringing them to the mainland for incarceration. That deal expires on Sept. 30 along with funding for most of the government, so the White House is in the hot seat.
“They’ve got three or four weeks to come up with a plan, or they’re going to be facing some difficult votes,” the congressional aide said. “The issue is not going away. They can push the deadline and try to buy themselves some more time, but they can’t fail to put forward a plan and expect to close it on Jan. 22. Things aren’t going to work that way.”
There has been some good news for the White House. Officials in Michigan have shown some interest in moving the Guantanamo detainees to a state prison that’s slated to close. Federal officials recently visited the site but haven’t announced their conclusions.
The legal regime that would govern the prisoners on U.S. soil is also up in the air, after the administration extended a July deadline to address such issues. The White House is leaning against proposing a new law on preventive detention, though some in Congress think it’s essential that the president at least try to pass one. But Obama is squeezed between lawmakers fiercely opposed to bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. and another contingent on the Hill likely to resist any system that brings the detainees here without guaranteeing them full trials.
High-profile talks on Iran nukes
The pressure Obama is likely to feel this fall to win support for a new sanctions regime against Iran will be largely of his own doing. Originally, he planned to give the Iranians until December to sit down with the U.S. for nuclear talks. However, at the G-8 summit in Italy last month, the president got other major powers, such as Russia and China, to agree to take up the Iranian nuclear program when they travel to New York for the U.N. General Assembly debate beginning Sept. 23 and a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh that begins the next day.
“I think what that does is it provides a time frame. The international community has said, 'Here's a door you can walk through that allows you to lessen tensions and more fully join the international community,'” Obama said during his Italy visit. “If Iran chooses not to walk through that door, then you have on record the G-8, to begin with, but I think, potentially, a lot of other countries that are going to say we need to take further steps.”
Obama is upping the ante even further by hosting a formal heads-of-state meeting at the U.N. on Sept. 24 to discuss nuclear proliferation and disarmament, though officials say that session is not meant to single out Iran.
In terms of sheer time, Obama is to spend at least three days next month attending the summit meetings in New York and Pittsburgh. That’s a big chunk of chief-executive scheduling real estate when his key domestic initiative is battling to survive on the Hill. Aides will surely note that it was during the foreign trip that included the G-8 that Obama first began to lose traction in the health care debate.
Torture revisited: interrogation, memos and a special prosecutor?
Obama is facing a flurry of decisions and events that are poised to push the debate over Bush administration interrogation tactics back into the news. Attorney General Eric Holder is mulling a decision about whether to name a special prosecutor to investigate whether some harsh interrogations constituted crimes. He’s also expected to announce soon whether he will urge bar discipline against Justice Department lawyers who wrote memos giving legal clearance for waterboarding and other practices.
Obama may play no role in Holder’s decision on naming a special prosecutor. But even supporters of launching such a probe acknowledge that it will send the right into a fury.
The interrogation issue could flare up soon, since the CIA faces a deadline Monday to turn over a newly declassified version of an internal report on the effectiveness of techniques that have been branded by critics as “torture.”
When Obama came into office, he promised no more torture and ordered that all interrogations comply with the Army Field Manual. But he also launched a little-covered task force to consider whether the CIA should have more leeway than typical military personnel when questioning terror suspects. After punting on a July deadline, that panel’s recommendations are now due on Sept. 21.
“If you can get information through rapport, or if time is not of the essence, that’s one thing, but when the former military, FBI and CIA guys stop posturing, most of them will admit they’d like to have something a little bit tougher if the person is not cooperative,” said John Radsan, a former CIA attorney.
Afghanistan will be back on the national radar screen this week as it holds a presidential election, but it is sure to need even more attention from Obama this fall. U.S. officials are already warning that the victor in the contest may not be known for weeks, especially if a runoff is required, creating a new period of uncertainty. And there are calls from many experts for the U.S. to boost its troop strength to fend off the resurgent Taliban.
“Afghanistan ... will require some big decisions: whether to send more U.S. troops, how to prepare the country and Congress for the likelihood of a continued difficult period, how to address the results of the presidential race,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Military commanders seem to be trying to avoid asking for more troops above the 21,000 additional that Obama authorized earlier this year. Any new proposal likely would keep the total numbers the same while increasing combat personnel. Any perception of further escalation in the 8-year-old war will almost certainly inflame Democrats on the left, who have put up little resistance so far.
“But I see this as an opportunity, politically — for Obama to show that he continues to be thoughtful and steady on a key national security matter, to show that he is up to the job of commander in chief,” O’Hanlon said. “I don’t see it as a distraction. Admittedly, it is an extra burden and drain on time.”
Legal standoff over state secrets and wiretapping
Obama also faces a test in the coming weeks of how far he’s willing to go in defending his predecessor’s decision to institute warrantless wiretapping. What may be the only viable lawsuit over the program heads to court on Sept. 23 for a key hearing.
“It could be very awkward, and it could be very significant,” said Jon Eisenberg, a lawyer for the Al-Haramin Islamic Foundation, whose officials were accidentally sent a top secret document allegedly confirming the surveillance. The White House has tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to kill the suit on state secrets grounds, even though Obama said the secrecy privilege was overused.
Now, Eisenberg is trying to bait officials into saying whether they believe Bush’s actions were legal or went beyond the authority of the chief executive.
“We’re merely disappointed that [Obama] is fighting us on state secrets. If he fights us on presidential power, I would be quite outraged,” Eisenberg said, noting that Obama and Holder said during the presidential campaign that the wiretapping program was illegal.
“I’ve essentially dared Holder and the Obama folks to state their position on presidential power,” Eisenberg said. “Is Obama going to just wave away the extraordinary power Bush and Cheney handed to him? I doubt it. ... I myself drank the Kool-Aid. I thought he was different. Now, once again, he’ll have the opportunity to show whether he’s different.”