WASHINGTON -- William K. Lietzau, the top Pentagon official dealing with detainees, is stepping down to take a private-sector job, according to people familiar with the matter. His departure comes at a time when President Barack Obama has sought to revitalize his administration’s effort to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Lietzau, who will leave his position next month, was traveling to Guantánamo on Friday and could not be reached for comment. In an email he sent Thursday to his staff at the Pentagon, he said he had accepted a job as vice president and deputy general counsel for PAE, a government services company.
“I believe we have made enormous strides on behalf of the country,” he wrote. “Steadily and without fanfare, we have made principled decisions that support our forces and put in place credible policies that enhance our national security.”
Lietzau has played a major role in shaping detention policies across two administrations. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was still a uniformed lawyer for the Marine Corps, he served as an adviser in the creation of the first version of President George W. Bush’s system of military commissions trials.
In the Obama administration, he has been the primary official shaping policies for “law of war” detention at the prison at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.
In that role, he has frequently defended prisoner-of-war style indefinite detention without trial, saying it is a moral, lawful and humane part of warfare. His leading role within the administration in defending its continued use in the open-ended war against al-Qaida has drawn fire from many of the same critics angry at Obama for failing to close the prison at Guantánamo.
In May, Obama announced that he would appoint an “envoy” at the Pentagon to handle issues about transfers from Guantánamo — which has been part of Lietzau’s portfolio. Obama also announced a new envoy at the State Department for such issues, a position that had been vacant since January. The State Department has since appointed Cliff Sloan, a Washington lawyer, to the post; the defense position remains unfilled.
Lietzau had been offered a more senior policy role in the Pentagon that would allow him to retain authority over detention issues generally, officials said. But in his email he told colleagues he turned it down to take the PAE job.