President Obama’s appointment of Clifford Sloan to take over the Office of Guantánamo Closure this week is the most recent indicator of the administration’s revived push to close the prison.
Sloan, a prominent D.C. lawyer, will work at the State Department to transfer all of the Guantánamo detainees who are cleared to go back to their home countries. He will also negotiate with members of Congress to reverse the bills that currently restrict the White House from moving the remaining prisoners to the U.S. for trial and detention.
Officials say Sloan was chosen for his ability to cross agency lines. “His broad experience from having worked in Congress and the White House, to arguing cases before the Supreme Court, will inform his work across agencies with our colleagues in Congress and with our foreign partners to responsibly close the detention facility at Guantánamo,” said Ian Moss, a spokesperson at the Office for Guantánamo Closure.
The post was previously held by Dan Fried, who facilitated the transfer of 67 detainees. Obama moved Fried from his position in January, which effectively closed the office.
Then in May, the president gave a speech at the National Defense University, where he made a point of saying he was committed to closing the controversial facility. Now comes the appointment of Sloan.
“It certainly means they are back in the game here,” Ken Gude, vice president at the American Center for Progress said about the latest move. “One of the things that needs to happen with Guantánamo is finding a way to transfer the 86 people cleared for release—not having someone in that role made that practically impossible.”
A noteworthy supporter of Sloan’s appointment is his close colleague and former White House Counsel Gregory Craig, who headed Obama’s efforts to close the detainee camp after the 2008 election, and pushed to have some prisoners transferred to the U.S. Craig resigned from his post in 2009 after news spread that officials were unhappy with how he was progressing. His departure was at the time the highest-level shake-up to hit Obama’s administration.
“My first reaction to them appointing Cliff to this job was that President Obama and Secretary Kerry really knew what they were doing when they asked him to take on this assignment,” Craig told The Daily Beast. “When you look at all the qualities that he’s going to bring to this job, I’m suddenly optimistic that we will get this done.”
This month’s senatorial visit to Guantánamo Bay was largely seen as an indicator of a renewed White House outreach to Congress. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D–California) and John McCain (R–Arizona) visited the detention center with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on what they characterized as a fact-finding trip.
Still, at least one attempt in Congress to make the closing a reality, has already failed. Rep. Jim Moran (D–Virginia), who worked closely with the Obama administration in 2009 during its first attempts to close the camp, introduced four amendments to congressional bills in June that would have changed the language that limits Guantánamo prisoners from being moved elsewhere. They would effectively have allowed prisoners captured before December 31, 2005, to be released or transferred.
“The people brought there before 2006 are mostly there because they were turned in for bounties, and the majority of them have never been in combat against the U.S. or any of our allies and the vast majority have been approved for release,” Moran said in an interview. Even though the amendments didn’t pass, he hopes they helped spark conversation and new thinking about the detention center.
Moran is scheduling his own trip to visit Guantánamo at the end of the summer with an unlikely companion—Rep. Frank Wolf (R-–Virginia), who spearheaded the opposition’s campaign in 2009 to keep detainees from being moved to U.S. soil. His efforts posed one of the largest domestic backlashes to the president’s Guantánamo plan at the time.
“He’s just had a very consistent and very strongly held position, and I disagree with it, but if I can get someone like Frank Wolf to change his mind, then maybe there will be hope to change the policy,” Moran said.
A spokesperson for Wolf’s office says that Wolf has not changed his stance on Guantánamo and is going on the trip at the behest of his friend Moran.
But although Congress is a necessary ingredient in shutting the detainee prison, some say Obama could be doing more. A rule in the 2012 National Defense Association Act, the main legislation limiting the White House from moving Guantánamo prisoners, gives Obama the power to sign a waiver to release cleared prisoners.
“The surprise to all of us is [Obama] keeps trying to blame Congress for his inaction,” said Michael Ratner, a lawyer who has represented multiple Guantánamo prisoners, “and that’s all fine and good, but he has the power right now to start transfers. There’s congressional legislation, but all Obama has to do is sign a waiver and start transferring immediately.”
Ratner is skeptical about whether the new Guantánamo Closure Office will have enough force to push forward the at-times rocky Obama initiative to shut the camp.
“We’ve seen it before. Obama got rid of Greg Craig and then we had Dan Fried and that office was abolished when he took office in the second term,” he said. “[Obama] only redid the office when they had the hunger strikes so the question is, Will [Sloan] do more than Fried did?”