The Pentagon is expected to name congressional lawyer Paul Lewis as its special envoy to close the Guantánamo detention facility, The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg reports. The position, which reports to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, has been empty since President Obama created it four months ago during the height of the Guantánamo hunger strike. There are currently 17 prisoners still on strike, down from 106 in July.
News of this hire came just hours after several civil, human and religious rights groups wrote to Obama, reminding him of his stated commitment to closing the prison by hiring a Defense Department envoy and transferring detainees cleared for release. After making those comments in April and May, this June Obama hired Washington lawyer Clifford Sloan to be the envoy for Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department to close the prison. Obama was expected to announce Sloan's counterpart in the Defense Department soon after, but no one has been named to the position until now.
Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale confirmed Lewis' hire, and said Hagel would announce officially later today. Lewis will start on November 1. "This announcement reflects the Department's commitment to implementing the President's directive to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay," Breasseale said in a statement. Lewis previously served as minority counsel at the House Armed Services Committee and, before that, as counsel to the chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
This news may not be enough to convince those who feel Obama has lost interest in closing the detention center. Despite this year's massive hunger strike, which grew from six strikers in March to 106 in July, the Pentagon has yet to fill the recently vacated head of Detainee Affairs position. And while there are 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release, some for years, they're still at the prison. Since taking office in June, Sloan, the State Department's envoy, has only managed to transfer two prisoners. But while Obama has failed to close the prison, it's not for lack of trying. In June the Republican-led House of Representatives voted down a bill to close the detention center by December 2014. So Guantánamo is still open, and will be for the foreseeable future, but the government's still closed.