Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday named a former Clinton administration official with counter-terror credentials as the next Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, filling a six-month vacancy.
New York attorney Lee S. Wolosky starts Monday at the State Department. He becomes the third so-called “Guantánamo Closer,” after lawyer Clifford Sloan and senior U.S. diplomat Dan Fried, who negotiated with ally nations to resettle or take home about 120 detainees since President Barack Obama took office.
“I'm certainly under no illusions that this is going to be easy,” Wolosky told the Miami Herald in an interview on Monday night.
He said his first order of business will be securing safe resettlement or repatriation deals for the 52 of Guantánamo’s 116 captives who are currently cleared to go. All but nine of them are from Yemen, the Arabian Gulf nation with a powerful, destabilizing al-Qaida franchise, and likely need other countries to receive them.
Wolosky also said he would seek to speed up the pace of the Periodic Review Boards, an inter-agency U.S. national security panel that decides which other captives can be released through security agreements.
“He will engage directly with America’s overseas friends and partners,” Kerry said in a statement, “while consulting closely with other interested U.S. agencies and with the appropriate committees of Congress.”
Wolosky, 46, a 1995 Harvard Law School graduate, worked on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration and early on in the George W. Bush White House as the Director for Transnational Threats. He has never been to Guantánamo, but was expected to visit soon.
He also has been representing Sheryl and Yehutiel Wultz, a Weston couple suing the Bank of China, accusing it of being the alleged conduit of funding that the group Islamic Jihad used to finance a 2006 bombing outside a Tel Aviv restaurant that killed their son Daniel at age 16.
Sheryl Wultz said Tuesday that she and her husband had worked closely with Wolosky for three years and found him to be “a caring attorney and a formidable negotiator.”
She said she considered him “an excellent person” for his new role, which she described as helping “detainees who are not terrorists and can safely and responsibly be shipped out of Gitmo.”
“He has learned firsthand the havoc that terrorism wreaks on families, communities, countries and the world,” Sheryl Wultz said in an email. “Yet he also understands the need to work out reasonable resolutions to difficult issues.”
Supporters suggested his credentials should reassure Congress, which has for years imposed cascading transfer restrictions to thwart Obama’s closure ambitions.
Legislation has forbidden the transfer of detainees to the United States for any reason — not trial, not medical treatment, not continued detention. Congress also has imposed tougher security requirements on transfers to other nations, which for a time stalled all releases.
“He's a tough guy. This is not a case of putting someone from a human rights organization in charge of emptying Guantánamo,” said John Bellinger III, the former Bush administration legal advisor at the National Security Council and State Department. He has known Wolosky for two decades.
The Guantánamo assignment is going to be “tough because we’re going into an election year where everything's going to be politicized,” Bellinger said, adding that Wolosky will likely have to both privately and publicly assure Congress of the soundness of any White House plan for closure.
“Having someone who was in charge of counter terrorism policy and, in fact, steeped in it — I think is a good person to have at the helm,” he said.
Wolosky is a partner at the New York office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner with a focus on complex international litigation. The firm chairman is David Boies, the lawyer known for representing Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election recount challenge, and the effort to overturn California's gay marriage ban.
Boies said Monday night that he’d known for “a few months” that Wolosky would be leaving. So other attorneys were already brought into some of his cases. Boies added that he’d given Wolosky leave for “as long as he needs. My expectation is that he’ll be back at the end of the Obama administration. I’d like to think he’s going to get it done before then but it’s very, very challenging.”
The George W. Bush administration had already through the years released about 530 Guantánamo captives, mostly through repatriations, when Obama took office vowing to close the detention center in Cuba that critics called a recruiting tool for al-Qaida.
Today, of the 116 captives, 10 are in war court proceedings and 54 were categorized by a 2009 task force as possible trial candidates or deemed too dangerous to release. That leaves Wolosky with some of the toughest cases to resolve.
“He has the contacts. He has the experience and he has the knowledge and he’s a very effective negotiator,” Boies said. “He’s got the requisite abilities. It’s a question of whether he’s going to accomplish what needs to be done here.”
Wolosky said by telephone from New York City that he supports bringing Guantánamo’s war-on-terror captives to the United States “under the appropriate circumstances and pursuant to a careful plan.” Engaging Congress on lifting its restrictions on domestic transfers is “somewhat outside my job description,” he added, but said he would do it, if tasked by the Secretary of State.
“The president’s policy is closing it. My job is to significantly reduce it,” Wolosky said, adding that “many political and military leaders on both sides of the aisle” favor closure. “Continued maintenance of the facility harms our ability to protect our national security interests and to advance our values internationally.”
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter