The State Department envoy responsible for negotiating prisoner transfers from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is resigning, officials said on Monday, even as President Barack Obama promises a stepped-up push to close the facility.
The surprise announcement of Clifford Sloan’s departure followed a flurry of detainee repatriations and resettlements. Sloan assumed the post in July 2013, and the State Department said he was stepping down and returning to his Washington law practice.
Sloan forged agreements that led to the repatriation of four Afghans last weekend and the resettlement of six prisoners in Uruguay in mid-December, but both deals faced delays at the Pentagon, which must give final approval.
His resignation follows the release of a damning report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s torture program. The report found that CIA practices around the world were flawed, brutal and ineffective and that the agency used Guantánamo as a "black site," where it hid prisoners from Congress and public view.
Guantánamo was opened by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, to house individuals suspected of involvement with terrorism who were rounded up overseas. Most of the detainees have been held for a decade or more without being charged or tried.
Many of the inmates at Guantánamo, as well as in Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison run by the U.S. in Iraq, were probably innocent and had been taken into custody "without regard for whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all," a former State Department official revealed in 2010.
Sixty-four prisoners at Guantánamo — including Shaker Aamer, a British citizen who was cleared for release more than seven years ago — have been cleared by an interagency review. But those working for their release have had difficulty identifying other countries that will accept them.
The number of detainees is down to 132, and several more are expected to be transferred out of Guantánamo by year-end. Sloan’s resignation, which takes effect Dec. 31, is not likely to affect transfers already in the pipeline. It is not clear whether his departure will affect future transfers.
“I’m going to be doing everything I can to close it,” Obama told CNN in an interview broadcast on Sunday, renewing a pledge he made when he took office nearly six years ago to shut the internationally condemned prison.
Keeping the prison open “continues to inspire jihadists” around the world and is “wildly expensive,” Obama said. But he faces significant obstacles, including a ban imposed by Congress on the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland.
Differences over the pace of transfers, a senior U.S. official said, added to friction between outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Obama's inner circle, culminating in the defense secretary's resignation last month.
Like Hagel, his replacement Ashton Carter is widely viewed as being more conservative than Obama on the pace of releasing prisoners from Guantánamo. Obama has not decided on a replacement for Sloan.
Al Jazeera and wire services