Six Months of Trump: Is Closing Guantánamo Still Possible?


A collage of Donald Trump and the sign for Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Just a few days ago, we passed a forlorn milestone: six months of the presidency of Donald Trump. On every front, this first six months has been a disaster. Trump humiliates America on the international stage, and at home he continues to head a dysfunctional government, presiding by tweet, and with scandal swirling ever closer around him.

On Guantánamo, as we have repeatedly noted, he has done very little. His initial threats to send new prisoners there, and to revive CIA “black sites,” have not materialized. However, if he has not opened the door to new arrivals, he has certainly closed the door on the men still there.

These include, as Joshua A. Geltzer, the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2015 until Trump took office, wrote in “Is Closing Guantánamo Still Conceivable?,” a recent article for the Atlantic, “the five still held at Guantánamo despite being recommended for transfer.” He added, “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.”

Geltzer continued: “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.”

That was the speech in which Trump said of Guantánamo, “we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up,” and, even after he took office, the wild rhetoric continued. In March, as we wrote about here, he tweeted an outrageous lie about Guantánamo — “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!”

As we explained at the time, “That number, 122, was taken from a two-page ‘Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,’ issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in July 2016. The summaries are issued twice a year, and, crucially, what Trump neglected to mention is that 113 of the 122 men referred to in that summary were released under President Bush, and just nine were released under President Obama. In the latest ODNI summary, just released, the total has been reduced to 121, with just eight men released under President Obama.” (We should add that, here at “Close Guantánamo,” we also dispute the figures compiled by the ODNI).

“Rebuking a bipartisan project”

However, what is important about Trump’s position is not just his stupidity, or his wholesale opposition to whatever position was taken by President Obama; it is also, as Geltzer explains, that it is in opposition to the settled, bipartisan view of almost the whole of the US establishment.

As he puts it, “closing Gitmo isn’t just an Obama position.” George W. Bush, who opened it, “expressed support for shutting it down in 2006,” and “[b]oth candidates in the 2008 presidential election backed its closure … 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.”

Geltzer’s sharp analysis continues: “Trump’s Guantánamo 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.”

Geltzer proceeds to note that, worryingly, Trump’s position on Guantánamo “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,” a “post-9/11 American toughness towards terrorism, and more specifically, a militarizing of that effort,” which, in turn, “represents an American commitment to ‘taking the gloves off’ when it comes to counter terrorism and minimizing the legal rights afforded to terror suspects.”

As he describes it, “Never mind the federal courts’ well-established, successful track record of prosecuting terrorism suspects; those with an unwavering committment to the Guantánamo project embrace its symbolism, regardless of the history and facts.” He then cites Ed Meese, Attorney General under Ronald Reagan, from 1985-88, who suggested, on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Guantánamo prison (the very day that “Close Guantánamo” was established), that Guantánamo helps Americans “remember that the United States is engaged in armed conflict and has been since September 11, 2001.” As Geltzer puts it, “In Meese’s telling, the facility is a concrete reminder that the war on terror ‘would be different from all previous wars,’” an echo of the alarming position taken by the Bush administration, which continues to poison America’s commitment to the rule of law (including spurious justifications of Guantánamo’s continued existence).

Geltzer proceeds to note that the current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has been “[p]erhaps the single most consistently vocal supporter” of the Guantánamo project, pointing out that, “soon after being sworn in, [he] reaffirmed his longstanding view that Guantánamo is ‘a perfect place’ to send newly detained terrorism suspects.”

In Geltzer’s analysis, this is another example of Trump “indulging a fringe view of what threatens Americans and what keeps them safe,” echoing “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.” (Geltzer adds that he is one of those former national security professionals).

Moreover, Trump’s position is not merely bad domestic politics; it is also, as Geltzer adds, counterproductive. That is how the former officials describe the Muslim ban, and Geltzer also notes that his “experience as a White House counterterrorism official under Obama confirms others’ observations that continued detention at Guantánamo makes it harder for key partners to help America with real counterterrorism needs.”

In a key condemnation of Trump’s position, he notes, “This is playing politics with national security, not protecting it.”

Geltzer proceeds to concede that “neither of Trump’s predecessors pursued a headlong dash to close the facility,” adding that, under Obama, this was “sometimes to the frustration of those outside government for whom Guantánamo’s closure was an urgent moral issue, even if one that the reality of congressional politics would simply not allow.” That ignores, as we stated from when we first started campaigning in January 2012, the reality that a presidential waiver existed in the legalisation that Congress produced to tie Obama’s hands, which, sadly, he chose never to use.

Geltzer also writes of “a sometimes slow but justifiably cautious process for evaluating which detainees could be transferred and under what conditions, and then for pursuing such transfers.” He adds, “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, Guantánamo generally didn’t represent a stumbling block to the type of cooperation on which counterterrorism inevitably relies.”

That latter point may well be true, but on the review process, Geltzer’s position ignores the layers of unjustifiably extreme caution that meant that men approved for ongoing imprisonment under Obama’s 2009 review process (the Guantánamo Review Task Force), when they were designated as being “too dangerous to release,” had to wait, in many cases, for another six or seven years until the second Obama review process, the Periodic Review Boards, decided that, after all, they were not too dangerous to release, and, in many cases, the supposed intelligence used to justify their ongoing imprisonment was hopelessly flawed.

In conclusion, Geltzer claims that, although “it’s easy to view [Guantánamo] as a place frozen in time,” 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.” As we noted in a recent article, however, the decision to charge alleged al-Qaeda terrorist Hambali in the military commissions is nothing to celebrate, as the system remains irreparably broken. As a Trump administration official told Spencer Ackerman of the Daily Beast, “This system doesn’t work.”

A federal court trial that punctures Trump’s rhetoric

Since Geltzer filed his article for publication, there has been a development that shows, more appropriately, Trump’s rhetoric being undermined by political reality. Despite his bombastic claims that he would bring new prisoners to Guantánamo, he has just “brought a man suspected of belonging to Al Qaeda to the United States to face trial in federal court, backing off [his] hard-line position that terrorism suspects should be sent to the naval prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, rather than to civilian courtrooms,” as the New York Times put it.

The Times added, “The suspect, Ali Charaf Damache, a dual Algerian and Irish citizen, was transferred from Spain and appeared on Friday in federal court in Philadelphia, making him the first foreigner brought to the United States to face terrorism charges under President Trump,” also noting that he is a suspected recruiter for al-Qaeda, who “was charged with helping plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons.”

The Times also noted, “With Mr. Damache’s transfer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions adopted a strategy that he vehemently opposed when it was carried out under President Barack Obama. Mr. Sessions said for years that terrorism suspects should be held and prosecuted at Guantánamo Bay. He has said that terrorists did not deserve the same legal rights as common criminals and that such trials were too dangerous to hold on American soil. But the once-outspoken Mr. Sessions was uncharacteristically quiet on Friday. He gave a speech one block away from the Philadelphia courthouse where Mr. Damache appeared and did not address the case.”

This is one commendable instance of reality intruding on Trump’s fantasy view of justice — echoing what happened with his enthusiasm for torture, when even his own appointees opposed him — but it remains clear that, in general, his approach to Guantánamo remains disastrous. As Geltzer notes, in closing, “another six months of Trump’s approach to Guantánamo will, whatever his rhetoric professes, leave the country less safe — not more.”

We cannot agree more.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at where we stand with Guantanamo six months after Donald Trump took office. Unfortunately, there’s no great news to report. Trump hasn’t brought any new prisoners there, despite threatening to do so, but he shows no signs whatsoever of letting anyone go, even though five of the remaining 41 men were unanimously approved for release under President Obama by high-level governmental review boards. The only good news lately has been that a foreign al-Qaeda suspect has been brought to the US mainland to face a trial rather than being sent to Guantanamo, as Trump has persistently threatened to do. Cross-posted from

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    While I am relieved that this suspect will at least be given a legitimate, civilian trial in the US, I deplore Trump’s and Sessions’ determination to continue to throw people into Bush’s Cuban Limbo. Thank you for keeping the world informed of America’s dealings. Hopefully Europe will keep Trump and Sessions heeled by refusing to extradite suspects if they’ll be thrown in Gitmo.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your interest and indignation, Rose. Too many people are switching off, I fear. I think the decision to bring this suspect, Ali Charaf Damache, to the US for a federal court trial is another example of Trump bumping up against reality, and it’s always good every time that happens, but as you note it’s not as if these lunatics have given up on their dreams of keeping Guantanamo open – and even bringing new prisoners there. I actually suspect that the latter hope of theirs is proving untenable, but none of this is going to get Guantanamo close without concerted efforts by those who care – and we seem to be dwindling in number.
    Nevertheless, as you note, it remains important for Trump to be told by America’s allies that they won’t tolerate any dangerous new aberrations from international norms – like sending new prisoners to Guantanamo.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the latest photo in the Close Guantanamo poster campaign calling for Donald Trump to close the prison. Please join us!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    On another note, if you missed the story, officials at Guantanamo recently hired the band Drowning Pool to play at the prison on July 4th, knowing that one of their songs, ‘Bodies’, had been used to torture prisoners during the Bush administration:

  6. Tom says...

    Is it possible? A long list of things stand in the way. Many apathetic people with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. All of them are “terrorists”. Just keep them off the mainland. Corporate media that’s only interested in “infotainment”. Boring hard rolling news? Nobody cares about it. We don’t want to piss off Trump. If I do that, I’ll lose access and get fired. Politicians that only care about their own money and power. How many of them support torture? When Guantanamo torture was first exposed, many key powerful Democrats supported it. How many still do? Just gotta keep it on the down low.

    Notice how not one of these torture supporters says we support torture so much we want it shown on prime time TV. Why? If you think it’s so effective to stop “terrorists”, why the double standard? Because in a way it’s like racism. Don’t be stupid enough to be caught using the N word. Instead, use “coded language” that lets you score points by appearing tough and that way you won’t lose your seat.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tom. It’s certainly an uphill struggle, and I don’t know how the need to close Guantanamo can be brought back as a mainstream topic, in large part because most of the men still held can so easily be portrayed as unsympathetic by right-wingers. This is in spite of the fact that portraying them all as unsympathetic does nothing to lessen the fact that they are still being held in ways that are unacceptable – either endlessly without charge or trial, or put forward to trial in a broken system – and that Guantanamo will never become a prison whose existence is acceptable to anyone with respect for the rule of law.
    It’s interesting that you mention torture not being shown on prime time TV, as that wasn’t true for 24, and I think a pro-torture message has also insinuated itself into mainstream American culture since, via, in particular, the dreadful work of Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty. That did more damage to those of us fighting against torture than any other single event, but I’m sure there are many other examples I don’t know of.
    Here’s an eye-opening article about the CIA’s extensive involvement in Hollywood:

  8. Tom says...

    You’re right. I sit corrected. Regarding 24: many of the executive producers are right wing Republicans. 24 torture scenes were actually used in some West Point classes. Despite all of this, Keifer Sutherland (star and an executive producer) tried to distance himself from this. Look, don’t blame me. I’m just an actor. It’s just a TV show. We’re not responsible for some people not being able to differentiate between this and real life.

    Wrong answer. You’re one of the executive producers as well as the star. Everyone knows that if the network wants the star to stay on, they offer more money, power (the exec. producer role) and perks. Which is why Sutherland stayed till the end. Now he’s a mega millionaire and isn’t responsible in any way? Now he is.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I think there should be some sort of list of compromised stars, directors and screenwriters, Tom.
    Kiefer Sutherland would definitely be on it, as would those involved in the shameful propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty – director Kathryn Bigelow, writer Mark Boal and actress Jessica Chastain.
    For those wanting to know more about how the CIA influences Hollywood, I recommend these links:
    ‘Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA”:
    ‘How the CIA Hoodwinked Hollywood’:
    ‘An offer they couldn’t refuse’:
    And Wikipedia here:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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