Under heavy criticism for a series of decisions on national security that resembled, for some, those of the Bush years, President Barack Obama hosted a lengthy meeting on Wednesday with the leaders of several key human rights and civil liberties groups.
Addressed were the topics that promise to be front and center during the President's major foreign policy speech scheduled for Thursday.
According to an attendee, Obama expressed frustration with Congress' decision to remove funding for the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. The president declared that his hands were tied in some ways regarding the use of reformed military tribunals, though he pledged to try as many detainees as possible in Article III federal courts.
Hours after the meeting, the Associated Press reported that the administration plans to send Ahmed Ghailani, a top al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo Bay, to New York to face trial. Ghailani will be the first detainee held at GItmo to be brought to the United States, and the first to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
Speaking to human rights officials on Wednesday, the president also left the door open for the future release of detainee abuse photos, saying that his administration's current opposition to the release was dictated by immediate concern over the complications it could cause to America's mission in Afghanistan.
More broadly, Obama said he was determined to build a new structure for executive oversight that would last beyond his presidency, preempting the problems he currently confronts from happening again.
"We talked a lot about the framework in which he is operating, and he talked about his strong desire to reestablish a system under which the executive is not exercising unfettered authority," said Elisa Massimino, CEO of Human Rights First and an attendee at the Wednesday affair. "One of the chief differences between him and his predecessor was that he didn't think he ought to be making these decisions in an ad-hoc, unaccountable way. And so he said that, in thinking through this, he was focused on how his successor might operate."
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Massimino detailed what she described as a "lively and detailed and serious" discussion on some of the days most vexing national security issues. Over the course of roughly an hour and fifteen minutes, Obama, along with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Attorney General Eric Holder, advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, foreign policy hand Dennis McDonough, and counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, held court with a group of academics, as well as officials with the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Asked to attend the meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the group came prepared with what Massimino described as "some pointed pushback and questions" on a variety of topics. The president, she added, spoke for roughly fifteen minutes before opening up the forum for questions.
"It was really a back and forth discussion," said Massimino. "It was not, one side makes a presentation and the other side listens and takes notes. It was really probing."
There was much to probe. According to Massimino, Obama had "two baskets of issues he wanted to talk about: one was Guantanamo and all of the things pertaining to closing it. And the other was transparency."
On Gitmo, Massimino said, the President "emphasized that he was in this for the long game. He said he realized that you can't change people's misperceptions overnight, that they have had eight long years of a steady dose of fear and a lack of leadership and that is not something that you wave a magic wand and make it go away."
As for the criticism of Senate Republicans, who suggest that moving terrorism suspects to America would be tantamount to releasing them on the streets, Massimino recalled Obama's remarks as being relatively brief. He dismissed it, she said, "as really an unfounded fear that is being fanned by people who are seeking political advantage."
While acknowledging that she did not have verbatim quotes from the president, Massimino nevertheless relayed some of the remarks he made on other key foreign policy topics. On the administration's decision to reverse course and oppose the release of photos depicting abuse of terrorist suspects, she said that Obama brought it up without being prompted. "He raised it," she said. "We didn't have to ask."
"He said that he became convinced that the particular timing of what we were dealing with in Afghanistan right now made this a particularly bad time to release those photos," she explained. "And he said that we should not conclude from his decision right now that those photos will not end up getting released. There are many ways that might happen. The court might order it. Circumstances might change the balance of consideration that would weigh in favor of transparency, which he reiterated would be his default position."
On his decision to maintain and improve the use of military tribunals to try terrorist suspects, Obama, she said, "seemed to imply that some of the circumstances of capture of some of the people of Guantanomo would lend themselves to trial in a military commission." He reiterated, she added, that "despite the announcement of military commissions on Friday, his strong preference was that we use Article III courts..."
Taking place in the West Wing, the meeting was a chance for the president and some of those most disappointed by his recent policies to come to grips with the contentious events in recent weeks. While contending that the president's recent declarations on the aforementioned issues do not constitute a change in policy, the White House has clearly begun the process of cooling the political flames. Wednesday's meeting will be followed by a major speech Thursday addressing these very same topics.
Asked whether the president had pacified some of the concerns she brought to the White House on Wednesday, Massimino said that she was pleased with the opportunity for engagement. Beyond that, she still registered concerns.
"I think that many of us were disappointed by the announcement about the military commissions and wondered what the reasoning was behind that. And to be honest, I am still wondering having been in this meeting today. I don't think that this fits the overall framework that the president had articulated about using our values to reinforce a counter terrorism strategy against al Qaeda."
An email to the White House for clarification or comment was not immediately returned.