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 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.
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Lewis starts on the job Nov. 1, said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, reflecting “the Department’s commitment to implementing the President’s 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 didn’t 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 he’d 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.
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’ve 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.
Lewis, who teaches at Georgetown University, got his law degree from Notre Dame in 1983 and was a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1982 to 1987, finishing up as a captain. 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 Guantánamo.
Many of the captives cleared for release have been stuck at Guantánamo because of turbulence in their home countries — such as Yemen and Syria — and 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo to the front burner, stand up to Congress’ fear-mongering and get the job done.”
A former Guantánamo point man for the Bush administration, Cully Stimson, described Lewis as “an excellent choice”
“He is smart, saavy, and knows the law and policies in this area,” said Stimson who is currently director of the National Security program at the Heritage Foundation. “He has a very tough job, and one which will succeed or fail based solely on whether the president is finally willing to spend real political capital to get the job done.”