Greg Craig is One Powerful White House Counsel

January 28, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Something that’s gone a bit unremarked upon during last week’s overview of President Obama’s executive orders rolling back the torture policies of the Bush administration is the role of the White House counsel.

Remember that in former President George W. Bush’s first term, his crony and one-time White House counsel Alberto Gonzales — a man out of his depth on constitutional issues — was a willing partner of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s top lawyer, David Addington, and the Justice Department’s John Yoo, in asserting vast presidential authorities on surveillance, interrogation and detention. The National Security Council’s general counsel, John Bellinger, was simply excluded or railroaded in many of these cases, according to Bart Gellman and Jo Becker.

Obama’s White House counsel is another trusted aide, Greg Craig. But the similarities to Gonzales end there.

Craig was an aide to President Clinton, helping direct the team combating the impeachment proceedings, and a senior State Department official during Clinton’s second term. (He was one of the earliest Clintonistas to support Obama in the primaries.) As White House counsel, Craig appears to have consolidated a fair amount of power in his office. This morning, the White House announced 31 deputies and aides who’ll be working for Craig. One announcement in particular stands out:

Mary DeRosa

The President has named Mary DeRosa to be Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Affairs and Legal Adviser to the National Security Council.

So in the Obama White House, the legal counsel to the National Security Council will report to the White House counsel. It’s probably too early to tell the implications of this, but it stands to reason that Craig’s positions on torture will carry impressive bureaucratic heft. Yes, that’s not saying a whole lot, but it’s something to watch for in the coming four years.