WASHINGTON - Three senior Pentagon officials tapped by the Bush administration to oversee detainee policy at Guantanamo Bay remain on the job despite President Barack Obama's order to reverse course at the Navy prison in Cuba.
The Bush appointees' 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.
Until Thursday, the senior judge in charge of terrorist trials at Guantanamo had stalled in enforcing Obama's demand to halt all court proceedings for the estimated 245 terror suspects held there. The judge, Susan J. Crawford, is a Bush political appointee.
Two other officials, working in the Pentagon's detainee policy office, have been shunted into civil service jobs. As a result, they cannot be summarily fired because of the change in presidential administrations.
In a letter released Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein demanded that Defense Secretary Robert Gates review whether Bush holdovers in the policy office had improperly kept their jobs.
"I ask that you immediately review the circumstances behind the conversion of these positions and the hiring of any former Bush administration appointees as career or temporary appointments in that office," Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote in the letter dated Feb. 4. "This is especially disconcerting within the Office of Detainee Affairs due to the nature of the policy recommendations that office provides regarding Guantanamo."
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.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment Thursday.
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.
After a week of uncertainty over whether she would obey the order, Crawford on Thursday overturned a lower-ranking military judge's ruling and froze the trial of suspected USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri from going forward.
Her delay in issuing a decision in the case forced dozens of Defense Department officials, along with relatives of the Cole victims, on standby Thursday for a weekend flight in time for al-Nashiri's Monday arraignment in Guantanamo.
Crawford declined to comment about the delay in the ruling or about her status as the a Bush appointee. 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. She also 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.
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Asked how long Crawford would remain on the job, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. J.D. 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.
Gordon said Hodgkinson was not immediately available 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 Communications Commission policy.
Jones declined to be interviewed.