By Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cliff Sloan has represented Jon Bon Jovi's band in legal matters and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, he has perhaps his toughest assignment: Helping to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Washington attorney was named on Monday as the State Department's Guantanamo Bay envoy, a central player in President Barack Obama's renewed push to make good on a 2008 campaign promise to shut the installation where the United States holds terrorism suspects. Obama wants to close the facility because it is a legacy of the Bush administration that he feels has damaged the U.S. reputation with allies around the world.
The most pressing demand for Sloan, who has deep legal skills but little foreign policy experience, will be to serve as the lead negotiator for the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees abroad, a task fraught with difficulty.
Obama last month lifted a ban on the transfer of prisoners to Yemen. Of 166 detainees at Guantanamo, 86 have been cleared for transfer or release and 56 of those are from Yemen, where al Qaeda has a dangerous foothold. Adding to the pressure to deal with the prison is the fact that more than 100 detainees are on a hunger strike.
The fear among many lawmakers is that those sent to Yemen or elsewhere would return quickly to the battlefield and plot attacks against the United States.
To forestall that possibility, current law requires the Defense Department to certify for each transferred prisoner that the destination country is not a state terrorism sponsor. The countries also must certify that they would ensure the individual would not threaten the United States.
Unless this law is lifted as Obama wants, transferring the detainees is nearly impossible, which makes Sloan's job all the more difficult.
"This is going to be a very difficult job, but he brings to the table I think both the combination of intellect and personality to find some solution. I don't know what the solution is going to be," said Newton Minow, a former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission who has worked with Sloan.
Another former colleague, former White House counsel Fred Fielding, said Sloan faces a tough assignment but has the intellect and judgment "that will be required if it is to have a chance to succeed."
'INHERITING A MESS'
Sloan, who declined to be interviewed by Reuters, will work with a Defense Department envoy to be named soon. He also must deal with lawmakers who oppose moving any detainees to face prosecution in the United States.
"There is wide bipartisan opposition to the president's plan to transfer terrorists from the secure facility at Guantanamo into American cities and towns," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Sloan, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
He was an associate counsel in the Bill Clinton White House, and at one point worked for then-U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr, who would eventually bring impeachment charges against Clinton.
A former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, Sloan has been involved in six U.S. Supreme Court arguments, including one in which he had the temerity to ask a question of Justice Antonin Scalia.
"In one of my first Supreme Court arguments, I responded to a question from Justice Scalia by asking him a question. I learned that you never answer the bench with a question!" Sloan told the legal website Law360 in an interview in February.
He served as lead counsel for Bon Jovi's band in a successful copyright infringement lawsuit.
Sloan was picked for the job because he is considered an effective advocate who will work well with all U.S. government branches.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Sloan, besides negotiating detainee transfers, will periodically review the detainees not approved for transfer.
Sloan fills the post left vacant by veteran diplomat Dan Fried when he moved on in January to work in the State Department office of international sanctions.
"He's inheriting a mess because there's no political consensus to close it and everybody is scoring as many partisan points as they can," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson, Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker)