Members of Amnesty International, at a protest in Belfast, Northern Ireland,… (Peter Muhly / AFP-Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Monday that it had chosen a longtime Washington attorney who has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations to find a way to close down the prison at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The action comes three days after the Republican-led House overwhelmingly passed a defense measure to keep the prison running.
The State Department made the announcement of Clifford Sloan as the new envoy charged with closing the prison that has held some of the top terrorism captives since the island fortress was built months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But how Sloan will accomplish that goal remains unclear. No movement has been made in transferring scores of Yemeni prisoners home, and countless other captives have waged a hunger strike. The case against its highest-profile prisoners, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, remains bogged down and far from reaching a U.S. military trial.
Nevertheless, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other top officials said the Guantanamo prison had long outlived its usefulness, and that its continued operation only promoted future retaliation by terrorists.
Closing Guantanamo "will not be easy," Kerry said in a statement. "But if anyone can effectively navigate the space between agencies and branches of government, it's Cliff." Sloan, he said, is "the kind of bridge-builder we need to finish this job."
Sloan has served as a White House associate counsel under President Clinton, an assistant solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush, and a Supreme Court clerk. To bolster his credentials, the administration released statements of support from former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, former Solicitor Gen. Kenneth W. Starr and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow.
"Our fidelity to the rule of law," Kerry said, "likewise compels us also to end the long, uncertain detention of the detainees at Guantanamo. We can do it in a way that makes us more secure, not less."
Jennifer Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said that she knew of no timeline for Sloan, and a Pentagon envoy to be named later, to close the doors and empty the cells at Guantanamo. But, she said, "this is something we are committed to and we will be driving moving forward."
She said there were 166 detainees at the prison Monday, down from 242 when Obama took office in January 2009.
Among those remaining are 56 who have been approved for return to Yemen, and another 30 approved for repatriation to their home countries. But because of the volatile situation in Yemen, any transfers there remain on hold.
More than 100 prisoners have joined in a recent hunger strike.
Republicans in Congress on Friday voted overwhelmingly for a $638-billion defense bill that also would block any attempts by the Obama administration to shut down the prison. The House passed the bill despite the president's threat of a veto.
In garnering support for Sloan, the State Department issued statements including this from former Justice Stevens: "I have known Cliff Sloan for well over 25 years. He is a superb lawyer with excellent judgment, fully capable of performing the most difficult assignments, including the one that the president has wisely selected him to undertake."
Sloan could not be reached for comment, and his law office referred all calls to the State Department.