Today, the Obama administration will announce the appointment of D.C. lawyer Clifford Sloan as the State Department's new envoy tasked with closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. One small problem: with some 150 unprosecutable detainees there, shutting down Gitmo is going to be borderline impossible.
Sloan, a former assistant to the Solicitor General in the George H.W. Bush administration and associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration has his work cut out for him. Efforts to close the facility have been stalled since January when the administration reassigned the previous special envy, Daniel Fried, without an immediate replacement.
In a statement on Sunday night, Secretary of State John Kerry said closing Gitmo "will not be easy, but if anyone can effectively navigate the space between agencies and branches of government, it's Cliff."
But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a former colleague of Sloan's told The Cable that the real pressure is on President Barack Obama. "As good as Cliff is, he can only go so far,' said Roth. "He's going to need the president to match the nice words from his speech at the National Defense University to a genuine commitment to close the facility."
As it stands, there are 166 men left in the facility at a costs of $150 million annually to U.S. taxpayers. On Sunday, the Pentagon's chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins scaled back the number of detainees "who can be realistically prosecuted" to around 20, meaning almost 150 will never be tried.
Last month, Obama denounced the facility as a propaganda tool for America's enemies and a hindrance to U.S. cooperation with allies on joint investigations at a counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington. "The original premise for opening Gitmo - that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention - was found unconstitutional five years ago," Obama said. "In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."
Administration critics from the left and right will be watching the administration's next moves closely.
Human rights activists want to see an end to both the facility, and its detainment policies. "One choice that shouldn't be an option is continuing a ‘Guantanamo North,'" said Roth, "a facility in the United States that supports detention without trial."
Meanwhile, the administration is wary of having a so-called "Willie Horton terrorist" moment on its hands, in which a prisoner upon release carries out a mass atrocity leaving the politician at least somewhat accountable.