The Obama administration has chosen a former U.S. Marine and seasoned congressional lawyer to serve as the special envoy at the Defense Department for the closure of the Guantánamo prison, which Tuesday held 164 prisoners.
Paul Lewis will fill the job that has been vacant since President Barack Obama created it in May, the Pentagon said Tuesday a day after the Miami Herald reported on the appointment.
Lewis, the minority counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, will work for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel exclusively on closing Guantánamo and transferring foreign prisoners from Afghanistan as a counterpart to State Department envoy Clifford Sloans 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 starts on the job Nov. 1, said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, reflecting the Departments commitment to implementing the Presidents directive to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. It was unclear Tuesday whether the job will carry the rank of a three-star or four-star general.
Lewis appointment rounds out a team that Obama ordered set up in May during a speech at the National Defense University 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 Tuesday, the military said 17 prisoners were on hunger strike 16 of them sufficiently malnourished to be force-fed if they didnt voluntarily submit to nasogastric feedings or drink a dose of Ensure on their own.
Two of them were in the hospital, said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, the detention center spokesman. He did not elaborate on their conditions.
In his May 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. He also specifically said hed 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 had been stonily silent on the second post.
Mondays letter from groups pressing for closure called the absence of an envoy part of a leadership void within the Defense Department. The Pentagons 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 theyve lapsed in the current government shutdown.
Lewis has been a largely behind-the-scenes player in the push-pull on Capitol Hill over Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo issues. He was last there April 22, as a staff member with a Congressional delegation. 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.