Report: Lawyer, former Marine chosen to head DOD Guantanamo closure team
MIAMI — The Obama administration has chosen a former U.S. Marine and seasoned congressional lawyer to serve as the special envoy to Guantanamo closure at the Defense Department, The Miami Herald has learned.
The White House is expected to announce this week that Paul Lewis will fill the job that has been vacant since President Barack Obama created the post four months ago.
Lewis, minority counsel at the House Armed Services Committee, did not return a call seeking comment. But two U.S. officials separately said that Lewis, who has worked at the Pentagon before, will work for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel exclusively on closing Guantanamo as a counterpart to State Department envoy Clifford Sloan’s work for Secretary of State John Kerry.
Hagel personally approved the choice, a U.S. official said Monday hours after 16 legal, religious and human rights groups wrote Obama complaining of slow progress in efforts to close the prison.
Lewis’ appointment rounds out a team that Obama ordered set up in May amid a widespread hunger strike at the base in Cuba that had engulfed more than 100 prisoners. “Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” the president said.
As of Monday, the military said 17 prisoners were on hunger strike — 16 of them sufficiently malnourished to be force-fed if they didn’t voluntarily submit to nasogastric feedings or drink a dose of Ensure on their own. None of the 17 was in the hospital, said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, the detention center spokesman.
The Pentagon holds 164 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay today, just two fewer than in May when at a National Defense University speech Obama called the prison that his predecessor set up in January 2002 “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
Obama said specifically that he would soon name two special envoys at the Departments of State and Defense.
While Sloan has been on the job since July, and oversaw the recent repatriation of two Algerians, the Pentagon has been stonily silent on the second post.
Monday’s letter from groups pressing for closure called the absence of an envoy part of “a leadership void within the Defense Department.” The Pentagon’s head of Detainee Affairs, Bill Lietzau, recently left and has not been replaced. Also, the Pentagon has an acting General Counsel.
One issue confronting the Obama administration is congressional restrictions on transfers and whether they have lapsed in the current government shutdown.
Lewis has been a largely behind-the-scenes player in the push-pull on Capitol Hill over Guantanamo policy.
In his most recent job, working for Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member at the Armed Services Committee, he has focused on Guantanamo issues. In 2002, he was counsel to the chairman of the House Ethics Committee and served as the lead counsel when the House of Representatives expelled Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio.
According to his profile on the website of Georgetown University, where he teaches, Lewis got his law degree from Notre Dame in 1983 and then did a stint as “a judge advocate in the United States Marine Corps.” He also worked as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan DA’s office and as a trial attorney in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Department of Justice.
Of the 164 captives, 84 have been approved for transfer by a 2010 federal Task Force. They include a Sudanese man who on Friday won a federal judge’s release order on grounds he’s too sick to be a threat to the United States, making him likely the next prisoner to leave Guantanamo.
Many of the captives cleared for release have been stuck at Guantanamo because of turbulence in their home countries, such as Yemen and Syria, congressional restrictions and White House unwillingness to send them to nations the administration considers risky for safe resettlement and monitoring.
Meantime, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued Monday that Obama should grow the prison camp population with at least one more captive — a Libyan known as Abu Anas al-Libi, whom U.S. forces captured over the weekend as a suspect in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in North Africa.
He was being interrogated on the high seas before likely transfer to New York City for trial in the same court where former Guantanamo captive Ahmed Ghailani was convicted in 2010 for his role in the embassy bombings.
“I believe the most responsible course of action would be to hold him as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay for intelligence gathering purposes,” Graham said in a statement.
“U.S. Navy ships were never intended to be confinement and interrogation facilities in the war on terror.”
The groups that wrote Obama urging action included The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, the Center for the Victims of Torture, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Human Rights Watch, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Presbyterian Church USA and Physicians for Human Rights.
The letter to Obama claimed that the Pentagon vacancies have “delayed decisions and actions needed to reduce the population at Guantanamo by transferring cleared detainees to foreign countries that will respect their human rights.”
Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International argued Monday that “cleared detainees can be transferred under current law.” He called closure one of Obama’s “signature promises and his legacy is on the line. The president should direct his administration to move Guantanamo to the front burner, stand up to Congress’ fear-mongering and get the job done.”