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Key Bush Gitmo Advisors Still Burrowed In At Pentagon

First Posted: 03/08/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:05 PM ET

Gitmo

A senior judge who has not followed President Barack Obama's order to halt military trials at Guantanamo Bay is among Bush administration appointees still overseeing how the Pentagon deals with terror captives.

Two other senior Pentagon officials have been shunted into civil service jobs. As a result, they cannot be summarily fired because of the change in presidential administrations.

Susan J. Crawford is the top legal authority running military trials at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. She is a Bush political appointee who has remained idle since a lower-ranking military judge ordered a week ago that at least one trial of a terror detainee could go forward.

Obama's executive order, dated Jan. 22, suspended all Guantanamo tribunals pending a review of the cases of the estimated 245 terror suspects detained there. Without action from Crawford, however, the arraignment of suspected USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri is scheduled for Monday.

Dozens of Defense Department officials, along with relatives of the Cole victims, were on standby Thursday for a weekend flight to Guantanamo for the court hearing.

Asked Thursday if Crawford would halt the al-Nashiri case, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. J.D. Gordon said, "It remains to be determined."

The Pentagon has reviewed the cases of all three appointees, whom President George W. Bush's White House vetted and approved for political posts in 2007. A spokesman said defense officials concluded that none "burrowed" into the system -- or improperly transferred from political to career jobs.

But their ongoing influence over one of Obama's first and most sensitive national security decisions raises questions by critics -- within and outside the Pentagon -- about whether those who championed the controversial Guantanamo military court system can now be depended upon to help shut it down.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. He was not initially aware of the Bush administration's three Guantanamo policy holdovers when asked about them earlier this week.

"Just because your shirt changes, doesn't mean you change sides here," said Colby College political scientist G. Calvin Mackenzie, an expert on presidential transitions. "Where you've got a new administration that campaigned against the policy you were working on -- I'd be pretty skeptical about expecting you to do the opposite tomorrow of what you're trying to do today."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Cabinet-level holdover from the Bush administration, told Congress last week he would look into whether political appointees have "burrowed" into the U.S. military work force. None of the three Guantanamo policy officials is on a list of about 150 political appointees cleared to keep working for Gates.

Crawford declined to comment. She is a former Pentagon inspector general who worked for Dick Cheney when he was defense secretary during President George H.W. Bush's administration.

Crawford was recently in the news when she said interrogation methods used on one suspect at Guantanamo amounted to torture. The Bush administration had maintained it did not torture.

Asked how long Crawford would remain on the job, Gordon said, "Until we're told otherwise."

The two other Bush appointees are now in civil service Pentagon jobs.

One of them, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Sandy Hodgkinson, was already a career employee at the State Department when she took the job that is usually a political post, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les' A. Melnyk. She was allowed to keep her career employee status, Melnyk said.

Hodgkinson oversees the Pentagon's detainee affairs policy. She is expected to remain in that office, if not in the political job, according to a military official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"To be clear, Ms. Hodgkinson is not and has not been a political appointee," Melnyk said.

Hodgkinson could not be reached for comment.

Also staying in the Pentagon's policy office is Tara Jones, a special assistant. Jones' last day as a political appointee was Jan. 16, but she recently returned as a temporary civil service employee though Sept. 30, Melnyk said. Those jobs can be used to transition into permanent government careers.

Earlier this week, Jones escorted three GOP senators during a visit to the Guantanamo detention center. All three -- Sens. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana -- oppose Obama's plans to shut down the prison. However, Melnyk said, Jones is specifically tasked to work on Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction issues in her new job.

Before joining the policy office, Jones worked several years on a Pentagon public affairs program aimed at persuading military analysts to generate favorable news coverage on the war in Iraq, conditions at Guantanamo and other efforts to combat terrorism.

The program has since been shut down amid fierce Capitol Hill criticism and investigations into whether it violated Pentagon ethics and Federal Communication Commission policy.

Jones declined to be interviewed.

(© 2009 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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Filed by Stuart Whatley  |