- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
After 18 months on the job, President Barack Obama’s point man for closing the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay is stepping down, Foreign Policy has learned. The departure comes amid the Obama administration’s renewed push to try and close the controversial facility after a lengthy series of delays and false starts.
“I admire the president for his commitment to closing this facility and am honored to have been able to play a part in making progress on that,” Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, told FP in a phone call.
Sloan, a high-powered attorney and former publisher of Slate.com, was widely viewed as one of the most aggressive bureaucrats in Washington in pushing to speed up the closure of the facility. Since the beginning of November, Sloan oversaw the transfer of 23 detainees to foreign countries. That upsurge in transfers has reduced the prisoner population to 132, down from a high of 700, and to its lowest point since the early days of the facility’s opening in January 2002.
“I’m convinced that there’s a finish line in sight now because of the strides we made in 2014 especially, and Cliff’s a big part of that progress,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “I’d like to have about a hundred Cliff Sloans. He’s the real deal.”
The administration’s public expressions of satisfaction at the recent spate of transfers does, however, mask the deep frustration many in the White House and State Department harbor for the Pentagon, which dragged out the process of removing many detainees who had in some cases been cleared for transfer years earlier, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Federal law gives the defense secretary, not the president, the authority to finalize the transfer of prisoners. For the last year, that dynamic fueled significant tension between the White House and outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was ousted by the White House last month and will formally leave the Pentagon as soon as his successor, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is approved by the Senate.
“Hagel moved incredibly slowly and it infuriated both the White House and the State Department,” one administration official said.
One particularly controversial case involved the transfer of six detainees to Uruguay — a deal Sloan helped secure in January 2014 that didn’t actually materialize until December due to Pentagon dithering on the transfer authorization, according to one official.
Justifying its actions, the Pentagon stressed its role in ensuring that detainees don’t become a threat to the United States after they’re released. “The Defense Department is taking all practical steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo and to close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, a Pentagon spokesman for detainee policy, told FP. “Next year, we will continue to reduce the population of the 64 currently eligible for transfer.”
Others point out that an intense interagency process involving the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Pentagon, Justice Department, and State Department already concluded that the detainees in question did not pose a significant threat to the United States.
In December of last year, when Congress loosened restrictions on transferring detainees to foreign countries in a defense authorization bill, many hoped the pace of transferring those detainees would increase dramatically. But it didn’t.
“The administration wasted a lot of time not doing what it said it wanted to do in the past year,” said Human Rights Watch’s Laura Pitter. “They’ve recently picked up the pace of transfers, but there was a whole year of loosened restrictions where the administration didn’t act.”
Despite the recent uptick in transfers, the White House is a long way from being able to close the prison. Even if the 64 detainees in question are successfully transferred, the other more dangerous prisoners remain a thorny obstacle. The administration will likely seek to transfer those prisoners to U.S. facilities, a prospect a GOP-controlled Congress will almost certainly resist.
At the moment, the administration does not have a replacement for Sloan lined up, though officials hope to fill the spot within weeks.
“This wasn’t the most coveted job in Washington. A lot of people thought Cliff must not have known what he was taking on when he signed up here,” said Kerry. “He was convinced that we were dead serious about mounting a major effort, and he was right.”
Sloan returns to the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP on January 1.