The Pentagon has appointed a new envoy for the arduous and controversial task of finally closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, five months after the position was announced.
Paul Lewis, a lawyer on the Democratic staff of the House armed services committee, will be the special envoy for Guantánamo closure, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.
The job is a new one for the Pentagon, complementing a similar position at the State Department. President Obama announced its creation in May during a major national security speech in which he recommitted himself to his thwarted goal of shuttering Guántanamo.
Unlike the State Department position, however, Lewis will have the additional challenge of finding third countries to take custody of the US military’s several dozen non-Afghan detainees in Afghanistan.
It has taken defense secretary Chuck Hagel four months to fill the envoy position, a tacit reflection of how even the most minor aspects of shuttering Guantánamo – a position that had broad bipartisan support before Obama – have proven to be a morass.
“This announcement reflects the department’s commitment to implementing the president’s directive to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay,” the Defense Department said in a statement Tuesday, confirming a report by Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald.
There are 164 detainees still at Guantánamo, including 17 who remain on a months-long hunger strike. Shuttering the facility does not necessarily mean freeing the detainees: the State and Pentagon envoys will facilitate “transfer determinations for Guantánamo detainees”, which can mean either freeing them or transferring them to foreign custody.
Transferring the detainees out of Guantánamo has aroused bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill, though Republicans are more vociferous on the issue. While George W Bush, former Afghanistan commander David Petraeus and former defense secretary Robert Gates have all voiced support for closing Guantánamo, congressional Republicans have fought it fiercely. Along with congressional Democrats, they have placed funding restrictions on transferring detainees to the US to stand trial, and require the secretary of defense to personally certify that any released detainee will not commit a future act of terrorism.
On Monday, after the Pentagon confirmed it had captured a suspect indicted in the 1998 embassy bombings, Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has made terrorism detention a pet issue, called on Obama to detain Abu Anas al-Liby at Guantánamo Bay.
“I believe the most responsible course of action would be to hold him as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay for intelligence gathering purposes,” Graham said.
Although Obama announced in May he would complete his unfinished Guantánamo pledge, there have been few signs that the facility is in the process of closing. Obama lifted his self-imposed ban on transferring 56 Yemenis that the Defense Department does not consider a threat to US national security, but all of them remain at Guantánamo. After releasing two detainees since Obama’s speech, the US military still holds 84 such detainees it does not consider a threat.