Navy's top lawyer named interim military commissions chief

The Navy’s top lawyer, a political appointee who helped reform the Guantánamo war court for the Obama administration, has taken over as a the top Pentagon official overseeing the Sept. 11 and USS Cole death penalty trials.

The Pentagon said Paul Oostburg Sanz began serving on an interim basis on Thursday, the day retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, also a lawyer, finished his term as “convening authority for military commissions” — the official title of the senior Defense Department official with the sweeping power to approve and dismiss charges, fund experts, reduce jury sentences and decide which capital cases can go forward.

Oostburg is currently the general counsel of the Department of the Navy, a job he got in March 2010.

There was no indication in a Defense Department statement on Thursday of how long it would take Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to fill the post permanently. MacDonald’s three-year contract ran out Thursday.

Before the Pentagon, Oostburg clerked for a federal judge in Puerto Rico and worked as a staff attorney for the Armed Services and International Relations committees at the House of Representatives.

While at the Armed Services Committee, according to his official Pentagon biography, he “was also instrumental in drafting, and the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2009.” He was general counsel of the committee, known as HASC, and in 2007 a National Journal profile of the committee staff said he had grown up in a military family and had HASC oversight of “counternarcotics and Southern Command issues for the panel.”

Oostburg got his law degree from Harvard in 1999 and before that worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, according to a 2009 Harvard Law School news release announcing that President Barack Obama named Oostburg as Navy’s top legal officer — a position he retains even as he serves as interim convening authority.

At his December 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, he said he had a brother serving as a Navy officer, and was born in Puerto Rico while his father was serving in the Air Force there before retiring as a sergeant.

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