Guantánamo: Ready to grow
It’s been more than a month since President Donald Trump took office, and the Tweeter-in-Chief has not once mentioned one of his most popular campaign promises: Loading up the detention center at Guantánamo with more “bad dudes.”
In fact, the president’s last known public word on it was on Jan. 3, when as president-elect he tweeted for a cessation of Guantánamo prisoner releases. The Obama administration ignored him and went on to transfer 18 captives for resettlement.
Now the detention center has 41 captives and a staff of about 1,650 troops and civilians. And while the commander, Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke, has not yet been given a formal order to plan for the first new captives since March 2008, they are certainly thinking about how to handle it.
“If a plane were to land tonight, could we do it?” Army Col. Steve Gabavics, the warden for the last 41 captives, told reporters at the prison’s last press briefing Feb. 11. “Certainly we’d find a way to do it in the proper manner.”
Outstanding questions range from whether the Trump administration will seek to lock up U.S. citizens or suspected terrorists captured on U.S. soil at the wartime prison, whether the White House plans to send members of al-Qaida’s successor Islamic State movement there and whether new captives will, for the first time, include women.
Trump has been outspoken on a number of issues — immigration, jobs and the U.S. news industry, for example — but has neither repeated nor expanded upon one of his most popular campaign soundbites: “We’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me. We’re gonna load it up.”
A White House official confirmed that the president hasn’t mentioned the prison or base since moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But, the official said on background that the president is still committed to keeping it open, something 11 Republican senators encouraged him to do in a letter last month.
At Guantánamo, Clarke said at his most recent press conference that nobody has consulted him on any new, coming policies. He added that he neither wants nor needs a say on any future Executive Order — just clarity on how to implement whatever the White House and Pentagon decide.
Of the 41 captives held at the detention center, 10 are charged with crimes and 26 are held as “forever prisoners,” indefinite detainees in the war on terror. Five more are cleared for release to other countries with security assurances that satisfy Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
The Pentagon has resumed holding parole-style hearings for the forever prisoners, convening six bureaucrats to hear from captives on why they wouldn’t be dangerous if the U.S. lets them go to other countries. Periodic Review Board representatives come from the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Directorate of National Intelligence.
On Tuesday, the board heard from a Yemeni captive known as Riyadh the Facilitator. But, in a glitch, observers invited to see a portion of the proceedings at the Pentagon only heard from the base but were not able to see Abdu Ali al Hajji Sharqawi, 42, on a closed-circuit video feed, something that had been routinely available during the Obama administration.
The board has not cleared a captive for release with security arrangements since Trump took office. So it is not yet known how the administration will handle the prospect of transferring cleared captives. The so-called Special Envoys, two attorneys responsible for negotiating and arranging such deals, were political appointees who have left their government jobs at the State and Defense Departments.