WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama has chosen a high-powered Washington lawyer with extensive experience in all three branches of the government to be the State Department’s special envoy for closing down the military-run prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Clifford Sloan is the pick to reopen the State Department’s Office of Guantanamo Closure, shuttered since January and folded into the department’s legal adviser’s office when the administration, in the face of congressional obstacles, effectively gave up its attempt to close the prison.
A formal announcement of Sloan’s appointment was expected today, according to officials briefed on the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the appointment publicly before the formal announcement.
Sloan has served in senior government positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations and is now a partner in the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP law firm. For the past several years, he has been an informal adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, who recommended him for the post, the officials said.
“I appreciate his willingness to take on this challenge,” Kerry said in a statement. “Cliff and I share the president’s conviction that Guantanamo’s continued operation isn’t in our security interests.”
The move fulfills part of Obama’s pledge last month to renew efforts to close the military-run detention center at Guantanamo. That was a major promise in his 2008 presidential campaign, but it ran aground due to opposition from congressional Republicans.
In late May, Obama lifted a self-imposed ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, in what was a step toward closing a prison that he said “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He said he would name envoys at both the State Department and Pentagon to try to unblock the closure process. The Pentagon envoy position has yet to be filled.
Word of Sloan’s appointment follows the House’s overwhelming passage Friday of a $638 billion defense bill that would block Obama from closing the detention facility. The House acted despite a White House veto threat.
The administration cited Guantanamo’s prohibitive costs and role as a recruiting tool for extremists. A hunger strike by more than 100 of the 166 prisoners protesting their conditions and indefinite confinement has prompted the fresh calls for closure. Obama is pushing to transfer 86 approved detainees to their home countries. Fifty-six of the 86 are from Yemen.
Officials said Sloan, whose diverse government experience includes clerking for liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and conservative prosecutor Kenneth Starr, would focus primarily on navigating between the administration and Congress to overcome the deep, largely partisan divide over closing Guantanamo.
“It will not be easy, but if anyone can effectively navigate the space between agencies and branches of government, it’s Cliff,” Kerry said. “He’s someone respected by people as ideologically different as Kenneth Starr and Justice Stevens, and that’s the kind of bridge-builder we need to finish this job.”
For more than three months, the U.S. military has faced off with prisoners on the hunger strike, strapping down as many as 44 each day to feed them a liquid nutrient mix through a nasal tube to prevent them from starving to death.
The standoff has grown to involve 104 of the 166 prisoners as of Saturday, and may be nearing a crisis point.
The men undergoing forced-feeding aren’t permitted to speak to journalists, but Ahmed Zuhair knows what the experience is like. Until he was released from U.S. custody in 2009, he and another prisoner had the distinction of staging the longest hunger strikes at the prison. The showdown at times turned violent.
The military acknowledges a “forced cell extraction team” was used to move Zuhair when he refused to walk on his own to where striking detainees were fed. He says his nasal passages and back are permanently damaged from the way he was strapped down and fed through a nasogastric tube.
Court papers show that Zuhair once racked up 80 disciplinary infractions in four months, refusing to be force-fed among them, and that he and fellow prisoners smeared themselves with their own feces for five days to keep guards at bay and protest rough treatment.
Zuhair, who was never charged with any crime during seven years at Guantanamo, stopped eating in June 2005, and kept up his protest until he was sent home to Saudi Arabia in 2009.