Is Closing Guantanamo Still Conceivable?

Former officials of both parties have endorsed the goal. But the 41 inmates left there have reason to wonder if they'll ever leave.

Four activists dressed up as Guantanamo Bay prisoners in front of the White House hold signs that accuse the U.S. administration of ignoring the deaths of prisoners waiting to be released from the U.S. prison in Cuba.
Activists rally in front of the White House demanding U.S. President Obama to close down Guantanamo Bay on April 11, 2013.  (Larry Downing / Reuters)

Tomorrow marks the six-month anniversary of the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. But today marks six months since another key event: the most recent resettlement of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. On January 19, the last full day of the Obama presidency, one detainee from the detention facility arrived in Saudi Arabia and three landed in the United Arab Emirates. If Trump lives up to his pledge not to allow any further releases, those four will be the last to leave the facility for at least four years—maybe longer. The 41 who remain must wonder whether departure is even conceivable under a president who, as a candidate, promised to keep the detention facility open and “load it up with some bad dudes.”

There’s one group of detainees for whom this limbo is particularly notable: the five still held at Guantanamo despite being recommended for transfer. This official designation refers to those still believed to be lawfully detained under the law of war, but unanimously recommended for repatriation or resettlement by an interagency group of career officials. In other words, their continued detention has been deemed unnecessary, assuming an appropriate country can be identified to accept them under conditions that ensure their humane treatment and address any lingering threat they might pose.

Trump has couched his refusal to continue with this process as part of his near-wholesale rejection of Obama and his presidency. His campaign pledge to fill the detention facility was preceded by a direct reference to his predecessor: “This morning, I watched President Obama talking about Gitmo,” Trump began, before making clear that his desire to keep it open was diametrically opposed to Obama’s wish to close it. In the weeks before his inauguration, as Obama continued to move detainees recommended for transfer, Trump slammed the administration for its repatriation and resettlement policies. “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” he tweeted.

But closing Gitmo isn’t just an Obama position. President George W. Bush, whose administration established the detention facility after 9/11 for detainees associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and captured in U.S. counterterrorism operations, expressed support for shutting it down in 2006. Both candidates in the 2008 presidential election backed its closure. Indeed, under Bush, over 500 detainees left Guantanamounder Obama, 197. Even Trump’s own press secretary had to backtrack when it quickly became clear that, of the 122 detainees Trump referenced as having returned to the battlefield, 113 were released under Bush, not Obama.

By breaking with longstanding efforts to repatriate or resettle detainees, Trump has refused to act on the recommendations of career national security professionals. He isn’t simply rejecting an Obama policy, as he claims. He is, instead, rebuking a bipartisan project.

Trump’s Guantanamo policy is a microcosm of his approach to so much, particularly in foreign affairs and national security policy. His reluctance to endorse America’s commitment to NATO’s collective self-defense (a reluctance he seems to have reversed recently), his similarly pointed efforts to rile its NAFTA partners without articulating a credible alternative, his seemingly concerted abnegation of American commitments to international partnerships and assumption of leadership in global affairs—he frames all of this as a rebuke of Obama’s purported “weakness and irresolution” when, in fact, it is a stark rejection of vital, bipartisan elements of America’s approach to world affairs. Trump’s foreign policy isn’t anti-Obama. It’s anti-everyone other than his own small and somewhat bizarrely oriented team of advisers.

This points to another way in which Trump’s views on Guantanamo illuminate the drivers of his national security policy. His approach plays to the small streak of American political discourse that imbues the detention facility’s continued operation with inordinate symbolic value in the war on terror. Viewed from this perspective, Guantanamo represents a post-9/11 American toughness towards terrorism, and more specifically, a militarizing of that effort.

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.

Trump’s view of Guantanamo, including his refusal to act on career security professionals’ recommendations for transfers, may not be changing. But the facility itself is. And so, over time, will the view of America’s partners of this country’s commitment to countering terrorism as humanely as possible. As that view dims, so will America’s prospects for maximizing the partnerships that can actually diminish the threat of terrorism faced by Americans. That’s why another six months of Trump’s approach to Guantanamo will, whatever his rhetoric professes, leave the country less safe—not more.