By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A newly appointed special envoy to lead the Obama administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo prison said he saw a window of opportunity that could substantially reduce the detainee population there in coming months.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday named attorney Lee Wolosky, who served in the National Security Council under the administrations of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to a post considered crucial to meeting President Barack Obama’s long-standing promise to shut the internationally condemned jail at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
The appointment marked the latest step in Obama’s slow push to close the detention center where terrorism suspects rounded up overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been held for years, mostly without charges or trial.
Wolosky replaces Clifford Sloan, who stepped down at the end of last year after 18 months in the job. He will be the State Department’s point man to negotiate the repatriation of Guantanamo prisoners or their transfers to other countries.
Though Obama continues to face obstacles from U.S. lawmakers to his long-time goal of emptying the prison, he has whittled Guantanamo’s inmate population to 116, less than half the number when he took office in 2009.
But the process has moved haltingly. The latest transfer, six Yemenis sent to Oman in mid-June, followed a five-month pause in such movements.
“We have a window in the coming months to work diligently with our friends and allies to reduce substantially and responsibly the detainee population at Guantanamo, as part of the president's policy of closing the facility by the end of his term,” Wolosky said in a statement.
Kerry said Wolosky was “ideally qualified to continue the hard diplomatic engagement” required to close the jail, which was opened by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama promised to shut it when he took office in 2009, citing the damage it inflicted on America's image around the world. He has often renewed his pledge, but lawmakers have restricted his ability to transfer prisoners and have barred him from moving them to the U.S. mainland.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Leslie Adler)