In turn, Gitmo’s continued operation represents an American commitment to “taking the gloves off” when it comes to counter terrorism and minimizing the legal rights afforded to terror suspects. Never mind the federal courts’ well-established, successful track record of prosecuting terrorism suspects; those with an unwavering committment to the Guantanamo project embrace its symbolism, regardless of the history and facts. Thus, there are figures like former attorney general Ed Meese suggesting that Guantanamo helps Americans “remember that the United States is engaged in armed conflict and has been since September 11, 2001.” In Meese’s telling, the facility is a concrete reminder that the war on terror “would be different from all previous wars.”
Perhaps the single most consistently vocal supporter of this project has been the current inhabitant of Meese’s old office, Jeff Sessions, who, soon after being sworn in as attorney general, reaffirmed his longstanding view that Guantanamo is “a perfect place” to send newly detained terrorism suspects. Here, too, Trump is indulging a fringe view of what threatens Americans and what keeps them safe, an approach that echoes his determination to take the legal fight over his anti-Muslim travel ban all the way to the Supreme Court, over strong indications from a range of former national security professionals that such a response simply isn’t responsive to today’s actual terrorist threats. (I’m one of those former officials.) Indeed, this group calls Trump’s travel ban “counterproductive,” just as my experience as a White House counterterrorism official under Obama confirms others’ observations that continued detention at Guantanamo makes it harder for key partners to help America with real counterterrorism needs. This is playing politics with national security, not protecting it.
To be clear, neither of Trump’s predecessors pursued a headlong dash to close the facility—sometimes to the frustration of those outside government for whom Guantanamo’s closure was an urgent moral issue, even if one that the reality of congressional politics would simply not allow. But there was, especially under Obama, a sometimes slow but justifiably cautious process for evaluating which detainees could be transferred and under what conditions, and then for pursuing such transfers. That was what our counterterrorism partners wanted to see from us: the journey, if not the destination. So long as those governments could tell themselves and their citizens that Washington was considering the transfer recommendations of career officials, Guantanamo generally didn’t represent a stumbling block to the type of cooperation on which counterterrorism inevitably relies.
Now, as the country finds itself at the six-month marker of the most recent resettlements from Guantanamo, it’s easy to view it as a place frozen in time, with no one departing under Trump and, at least so far, no one arriving. In truth, it remains a dynamic place. Reviews of detainees and the threat they may pose are ongoing, and those may yield additional recommendations for transfers beyond the five detainees already in that category. And, just last month, new military commissions charges were filed against a detainee, making him the 11th current detainee to be at some stage of military commissions proceedings.