Obama’s new Guantánamo envoy begins work, tours detention center

Army Col. John Bogdan, arms crossed, accompanies State Department special envoy Cliff Sloan inside Camp 6 in the Guantanamo prison camp handout photo released July 3, 2013, a day after Sloan's visit.
Army Col. John Bogdan, arms crossed, accompanies State Department special envoy Cliff Sloan inside Camp 6 in the Guantanamo prison camp handout photo released July 3, 2013, a day after Sloan's visit.

The State Department’s new special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo began work this week with a one-day trip to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba and said Wednesday that closure was a national priority.

Clifford Sloan, a former publisher of Slate magazine and a Washington attorney who’s worked in all three branches of government, told McClatchy that he spent Tuesday touring the detention center – learning about operations from its military commanders and talking with medical officials, presumably about the hunger strike that’s now spread to 106 of the 166 prisoners.

Sloan’s arrival this week rejuvenates diplomatic efforts that had been scaled back after his predecessor, Ambassador Daniel Fried, was moved to another department and the position vacated in January. Sloan said that he visited the prison camps on the second day of his new job because he considered it “essential” to have a feel for the place as he forges ties with Congress and foreign governments to move quickly toward the goal of repatriating detainees or finding countries willing to take prisoners in need of resettlement.

“President Obama has been very clear as he laid out the goal,and the objective is to close Guantánamo," Sloan said in a 15-minute interview, the first since his appointment last month. “Our marching orders are clear.”

Sloan was reluctant to divulge details of the visit, however. He declined to say whether he’d toured the secret Camp 7, where 14 prisoners once held in CIA prisons overseas are now held, or whether he’d witnessed any detainees being force fed, a controversial process of forcing nutritional supplements into some hunger strikers via a tube inserted in the nose and snaked down the throat into the stomach.

More than 40 detainees undergo that process daily; human rights groups have deemed such feedings as unethical.

“I did have a chance to talk to medical officials,” is all Sloan would say on the matter.

Sloan also confirmed that he met with the detention facility’s current commander, Navy Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., and the de facto warden, Army Col. John V. Bogdan. Sloan said military officials gave him “a very thorough” tour of the premises, though he couldn’t give specifics on which parts of the compound he saw.

Photos of his visit posted on the Pentagon’s website showed that Sloan visited Camp 6, at one point staring into an empty recreational yard, and the detention center’s hospital.

Sloan deferred to the military on operational issues, such as whether the detainees could expect an easing anytime soon of the lockdown mode that’s been imposed in mid April after guards went through captives’ cells and, according to the detainees, seized personal property and disrespected Islam’s holy book, the Quran. Prison officials have said they seized contraband, including weapons, during the raids. The searches touched off the hunger strike.

“I felt like I gained a very helpful understanding from going there,” Sloan said.

In May, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he renewed his first-term pledge to close Guantánamo.

Sloan said he reports to Secretary of State John Kerry but also will work closely with the White House on the diplomatic end of emptying the prison. In addition to Sloan, the State Department’s Office of Guantánamo Closure includes a deputy and two advisers – all attorneys – and two others to work on issues related to parole-style hearings, Periodic Review Boards.

A federal task force in 2009 concluded that, of the 166 men still at Guantánamo, 46 should be held indefinitely, without trial or charge, and that 56 were approved for transfer. Another 30 Yemenis were deemed eligible for transfer under certain conditions. The rest – 32 – were referred for prosecution. Recently, the chief war crimes prosecutor said many of those cases were no longer viable.

“We are working as hard as we can and as promptly as we can with foreign governments to move forward,” Sloan said.

Under Fried, Sloan’s predecessor, 29 detainees were repatriated and another 42 resettled in other countries for a total of 71 released. Since 2011, however, such transfers required certification from the Department of Defense, which hasn’t approved a single one and has yet to name its own envoy to work on the prison’s closure.

The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.

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