It was no surprise Tuesday night during his interminable State of the Union address to hear The Don announce the signing of an executive order that the United States will keep open the 16-year-old military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He hinted but did not quite say directly that new “unlawful enemy combatants” would be sent there to join the 41 prisoners still held at that facility. Some of those have been incarcerated there for more than a decade without a trial or the prospect of getting one because they were tortured.
Nearly two years ago, right after he won the Nevada primaries in February 2016, Trump said:
“This morning I watched President Obama talking about Gitmo, right? Guantánamo Bay, which, by the way—which, by the way, we are keeping open, which we are keeping open. And we’re going to load it up with some bad dudes, believe me. We’re going to load it up.”
Here are his comments about the prison Tuesday:
Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil. When possible, we annihilate them. When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them. But we must be clear: Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.
In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds and hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield—including the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi.
So today, I am keeping another promise. I just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.
I am also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qa'ida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists—wherever we chase them down.
A large portion of the prisoners originally sent to Guantánamo weren’t terrorists but people some individual turned over to authorities for the bounty or to satisfy a blood feud. But there’s no doubt there were a number of “bad dudes” among those delivered to that prison. A prison, it should always be remembered, that was built on Cuban soil taken under the threat of force contained in the Platt Amendment and has been kept in U.S. hands ever since by virtue of a bogus lease Havana cannot escape.
A prison rightly loathed throughout the democracies of the world. An unnecessary prison.
The United States has had no trouble arresting, trying, convicting, sentencing and incarcerating terrorists on American soil. In fact, civilian courts have convicted more than 620 people on terrorism-related charges since Sept. 11, 2011. Hundreds of them and other prisoners involved in terrorist activities before the 9/11 attacks are now held in lockups inside the U.S. One of those is Terry Nichols, who conspired in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He is housed in the ADX Super Max, the federal prison in Florence, Colorado, serving 161 life terms.
As for Trump’s claims about the release of “hundreds” of terrorists who have returned to reengage in their previous activities, that is off the mark. He and his speechwriters know this because The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler of the paper’s Fact-Checker series awarded him two Pinocchios for this same claim in the past. Today, Politi-Fact called him out on it again.
By law, the Director of National Intelligence is required to present a report at least as often as every six months about released terrorists who have returned to re-engage in terrorist activities.
Here is the latest such report, issued in October, and the key contents:
Note that of the total of 728 prisoners who were released, transferred, or resettled, 122, or 16.7 percent, were “confirmed” to have returned to some kind of terrorist activity. Eight of the 196 prisoners transferred during Barack Obama’s presidency re-engaged in terrorism, 114 during George W. Bush’s terms of office.
Thus, that "hundreds and hundreds" claim by Trump is as bogus his other 2,000-plus documented lies.
As for Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? He wasn’t released by the Obama administration. The U.S. military held him for 10 months in 2004, until December that year, at which time he was turned over to the Iraqis. They later released him, years before Obama took the oath of office.
Last week, I wrote:
From the outset there was no need for Guantánamo. But the neoconservatives in the Bush administration thought they had the perfect way to lock up people suspected of terrorism in a place outside the reach of the Constitution or international law. The land the U.S. leased at gunpoint in perpetuity after the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898 fit the bill: not under Cuba’s control and not really U.S. territory. A jurisdictionless limbo. Ultimately, the federal courts didn’t buy a hunk of that argument. But not before the prison had been filled with detainees, some of them having been tortured at secret CIA black sites before arriving.
The proper place to try suspected terrorists is in U.S. civilian courts instead of the hybrid military commissions now being used.
If the U.S. captures suspected terrorists in the future with the intent of detaining and questioning them, they should be held in U.S. facilities. Not at Gitmo, not at some secret CIA or Pentagon site in Thailand or elsewhere. And if they are charged and convicted, they should do their time in the U.S. prison system, which, for all its flaws, has proved itself quite capable of keeping inmates under lock and key for the rest of their lives if that’s what the courts decide should be the case.
The Guantánamo Bay prison, the whole concept of such a prison outside U.S. territory, is a continuing affront to the ideals of American justice. Unfortunately, our practice has too often fallen well short of those ideals and continues to do so.