Shutting the Door on Guantánamo: The Significance of Donald Trump’s Failure to Appoint New Guantánamo Envoys


Sunrise at Camp Delta, Guantanamo, August 14, 2016 (Photo: George Edwards).

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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.

Last week, Vice News ran a noteworthy article, Trump hasn’t appointed anyone to keep track of released Guantánamo detainees, highlighting how the Trump administration’s lack of interest in understanding the nature of the prison at Guantánamo Bay is actually endangering national security.

As Alex Thompson reported, although Donald Trump “has vowed to take the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and fill it with ‘some bad dudes,’ … he hasn’t yet filled the top two positions in the federal government specifically tasked with overseeing the over 700 former detainees who’ve already been released to ensure they do not become security threats.”

Under President Obama, the job of monitoring former prisoners and “coordinating their transitions to civilian life” was largely fulfilled by “two small special envoy offices”: “one at the Department of Defense that reviews detainees considered for release and then tracks the intelligence community’s reports on them, and one at the State Department that helps coordinate communication between detainees and their lawyers, host-country governments, US embassies, and the Department of Defense.”

As Thompson noted, Trump has not appointed a leader for either office, to replace Lee Wolosky at the State Department and Paul Lewis at the Pentagon, and, according to current and former State Department officials who spoke to him, “multiple members of the approximately 10-person office at the State Department have been at least temporarily reassigned,” although a representative of the State Department’s envoy office “maintained that, for now, the office has sufficient capacity to deal with released detainees.”

Nevertheless, Azmat Khan, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C. (formerly the New America Foundation), who studies issues relating to counter-terrorism, told Thompson that the Trump administration is “losing critical intelligence” about where former prisoners “are now and how they are doing,” and Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of the legal struggle against the lawlessness of Guantánamo since the prison opened in January 2002, explained, “Having somebody in place at the State Department is important to help with [released prisoners] reintegrating. That is important for the national security of the United States.”

Just 41 men are left at Guantánamo out of the 779 men held by the military since the prison opened. Nine died, and one was transferred to the US mainland for a trial, meaning that 728 have been released — 532 under George W. Bush, and the other 196 under President Obama. Where possible, prisoners have been repatriated, but when this has not been feasible — because of fears of ill-treatment in their homelands, or, as with Yemen, because of concerns across the entire US establishment regarding the security situation — third countries have had to be found that have been prepared to offer former prisoners new homes.

Of the men released, most, as Alex Thompson noted, “have begun quiet lives” in their homelands or in third countries prepared to offer them a new home, although some have gone on to take up arms against the US, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicates in a report published twice a year.

Here at Close Guantánamo we have long taken exception to the types of figures bandied about by the DNI without a shred of supporting documentation, and whereas the latest report suggests that 121 former prisoners have reengaged (16.9%), we are more convinced by reporting from New America, which, in 2013, put the reengagement rate at just 4%.

While we dispute the figures, however, and also cannot discuss recidivism without expressing our dismay at the sensationalist manner in which most mainstream media outlets deal with the DNI reports, it is clear that the reengagement rate was much lower under Obama than under Bush — of the alleged 121 cases, only 8 (4.4%) were under Obama, while the other 113 (21.2%) were under Bush — and part of that is undoubtedly because of the role played by the envoys.

Speaking of the two envoy offices, Azmat Khan stated that, “Having that position filled was extraordinarily helpful for released detainees’ lawyers and to make sure the released detainees were being held in safe areas.” She added, as Alex Thompson described it, that “congressional political pressure also made the Obama administration much more cautious than the Bush administration had been,” although, incidentally, this was also “one of the reasons the detention facility remains open.”

Lee Wolosky, who was the special envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department from 2015 until Trump took office, told Thompson that the Obama administration “worked hard to ensure a smooth transition for released detainees so that they could live a life ‘without temptation’ to go to the battlefield.” As Wolosky put it, “There needs to be some mechanism to monitor these people because monitoring security assurances helped us avoid problems.”

Thompson proceeded to explain that the State Department “negotiates with host countries to ensure that released detainees get access to things like employment, health care, and housing to ensure a smoother transition to civilian life,” and that, in addition, “they negotiate security agreements between the U.S. and host countries to restrict travel, arrange surveillance, and ensure the sharing of intelligence information.”

Paul Lewis, who was the Defense Department’s special envoy for Guantánamo Closure from 2013 until Trump took office (and whose recent thoughts on the need to close Guantánamo were posted here), agreed with his State Department counterpart. “Even if the president doesn’t want to close Gitmo,” he said, “his administration still has a responsibility to monitor released detainees.”

Nevertheless, as Thompson also noted, it appears “extremely unlikely” that Donald Trump “will fill the envoy positions,” because he “has yet to fill the vast majority of nearly 4,000 political positions throughout the federal government — he’s called many of them ‘unnecessary’ — and he’s proposing a 28 percent cut at the State Department,” to add to his stated enthusiasm for keeping Guantánamo open, rather than appointing new officials to jobs that contain the words “Guantánamo Closure” in their titles.

And yet, as with so much to do with Trump’s disregard for the administrative machinery of government, there is no indication whatsoever that his blasé or disdainful attitude will make government more efficient and more helpful for the American people, or, in the case of Guantánamo, that abandoning any direct monitoring of, and assistance for former prisoners will do anything to make the US safer.

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 debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD 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.

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at how Donald Trump, as part of his general disdain for government, has failed to appoint anyone to the vacant jobs of Guantanamo envoys at the State Department and in the Pentagon, who monitor released prisoners and help with their adjustment to civilian lives. Cross-posted from

  2. the talking dog says...

    To be “fair” to President Trump (still seems like a bizarre alternative universe to say that), he hasn’t filled a huge number of posts at State, Defense, and the whole government. Steve Bannon and his deconstruction of the administrative state on the one hand and the Trumpian demands for total loyalty in staff appointments have left most of the senior positions from subcabinet on down vacant.

    It seems that Donald Dick is now hooked on chocolate cake and launching Tomahawk missiles or MOAB bombs, and will only be interested in matters Guantanamo if something blows up, which would be unequivocal bad news.

    Best hope in my view might be special elections, and convincing Republican members of Congress that sticking with Trump will cost them their own jobs, as my limited optimism for him is gone.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Todd Pierce wrote:

    Trump merits all the blame one can heap upon him but I think a more comprehensive view of the US is necessary to understand what is going on here. The media is dazzled by the “adults” Trump has added to the administration, meaning the Generals in charge now. Former Bush administration officials are now queueing up for jobs with them, guys with lots of blood on their hands. They’re the “adults” in the room for our media and the alternate reality our warmongers have created. They preexisted Trump politically, and the perpetual war both parties have maintained “enculturated” the American electorate to favor the most militaristic candidate, which the results show, was a close call for who that was. Think 1928 Germany when there were rival fascist groups, including the German military itself with General Schleicher and his legal advisor, Carl Schmitt, a chief ideologist of fascism who only later became a Nazi.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Todd Pierce wrote:

    When it comes to Guantanamo, I would bet that Trump is completely deferring to the junta he put in place. This includes Gen. Kelly, one time overall commander of Guantanamo and how head of Homeland Security charged with rounding up alleged illegal aliens.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Todd. Your insights, as a former military defence attorney at Guantanamo, are greatly appreciated. I think you are certainly correct about the worrying ex-Bush people clamoring for jobs, although it does seem to me that, in relation to the day-to-day existence of Guantanamo, no one in Trump’s generally shambolic administration is currently thinking very much about what running it actually means – hence the neglect of the envoy positions.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    But I could be wrong, Todd!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, TD. I’ve just been away for a few days, gambolling with the lambs in Wales, which was a wonderful antidote to the idiocy of Trump and, here in the UK, Theresa May, who has now added ‘total hypocrite’ to her list of crimes, having promised not, under any circumstances, to call an early general election.
    As for Trump and his wreckers of the apparatus of government, yes, it does indeed seem that Guantanamo is just one of many, many aspects of government that are collapsing under the malignant influence of Bannon. I continue to hope that the self-inflicted collapse of government will create too many unacceptable shock waves for those who appreciate a functioning government, even if it is bloated in some aspects, and I’m sorry your limited optimism about Trump was misplaced – although, I must also confess, I’m not surprised.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Sputnik Junior wrote:

    Trump has already done more damage to this nation than any “terrorist” who was detained in Guantanamo combined. He is the largest threat to our security, he is the most terrifying persona in the world, and the people he incites towards violence are the true radicals and militants who actually do want to impose a kind of Sharia law on the globe, but not a law born of religion but of consumerism, greed lust and complete lack of morals. If they put him there I would volunteer for a life tour. I’d count out 8 sheets of toilet paper once every 8 hours with glee for the rest of my life. I have more candidates for my dream Guantanamo but none are so surely on my list as this disgrace to humanity and the American way.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Sputnik. I don’t think anyone deserves Guantanamo – even in jest – but I do want Trump gone, that’s for sure. Sadly, here in the UK, we also have an unhinged, power-crazed lunatic in charge – the hideous Theresa May. Our right-wing fellow citizens are clearly out of control on both sides of the Atlantic …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Todd Pierce wrote:

    “Our right-wing fellow citizens are clearly out of control on both sides of the Atlantic …” Totally agree. But in the US, under the cultural and psychological influence of 16 years of war and constant propaganda, our right-wing has been even more radicalized, and the other party as typified by the Wall Street wing whom Clinton represented, should now be seen as a “near-right,” vice the “far-right.” But on the issues of war and authoritarianism, there is little to distinguish them, as was seen with Obama’s DOJ saying, of course the Commander in Chief can put a journalist such as Chris Hedges in military detention for his “expressive activities.” Trump is only the logical, and virulent, excretion of a system which now sees most of the world as the enemy, and both parties are eager to see how far they can go with incitement of aggressive war against Russia, China, Iran, etc. As my European friends are at Ground-zero for a nuclear exchange, I keep wondering when you’re going to demand a halt to a foreign policy of your ally that Hannah Arendt would have described as totalitarian in that it has as an objective, global submission to the supremacy of the US military, that is, the National Security Strategy first articulated by Cheney/Wolfowitz in 1992, which the entire world is now paying for in multiple ways. Not least is the ethnic cleansing of the Mideast as a direct consequence of the 2003 Iraq War, and then its follow-on operations to keep the entire area destabilized, as Gen. Wesley Clark can be seen explaining on Youtube.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ah, if only we in the UK had a leader of whom we could demand anything sensible, Todd! Remember that we’re leaving the EU just so we can cosy up ever more closely to whichever homicidal lunatic is in charge in the US, as well as to dictators all round the world who have money.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Todd Pierce wrote:

    I hate to say it this way but the EU is fortunate to rid itself of what has always been intended as a US mole in the EU. Leading them like a Judas Goat into our wars, though to be fair, plenty of Europeans went along with the plans with sufficient US beneficence, dollars, directed their way. Sadly, if our military, doing what they were doing long before Trump and with the approval of the neoconservative Secretary of State Clinton, succeeds in provoking a war with Russia, the Europeans will feel the effects first as the intermediate range nuclear armed missiles will hit land before the inter-continental ones aimed at the US. It’s time for a European peace movement again because you couldn’t fill a small living room here in the US anymore with peace advocates.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I think Germany and France head the resistance in the EU, Todd, but don’t forget how supportive of the US many other countries in Europe are. The outcomes of the forthcoming elections in France and Germany are worth watching closely, but I feel, sadly, that we’re currently very far indeed from seeing the realization of any large peace movement in any western country, which would also need to be one that prioritized people over profits, and that recognized the humanitarian demands of the refugee crisis and the economic exploitation of countries outside the West that we ourselves have created, which has led to the influx of refugees from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants from all round the world. As it stands, however, the tide is turning against the needs of our fellow global citizens, and when it comes to shutting borders the far right are pretending to be saviors and, currently, are getting far too much support.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Todd Pierce wrote:

    Unfortunately, you are right Andy. We need to mitigate the harm we have created so much of, and which Trump now exacerbates, but we also have to keep in mind how much greater harm can yet be done, with or without him. Unfortunately, our media portrays the Generals he has in his cabinet as “adults” keeping an eye on him, when in fact, they’re the bastards handing him, and even lighting them, the “matches to play with.” Not to defend him as a moral actor, which he in no way is, but I think Trump at least has an instinct for self-preservation of himself and his family. The typical military member, on the other hand, always has a sense that they will sacrifice life, theirs and others, to “prevail” in a battle. I suspect that is even more so in the “warrior-monk” personality of someone like a General Mattis, living as a warrior-monk, with those warrior values. Where did we see those most on display in the past?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Todd – and you are very good at explaining the savagery of the US military leadership. Here in the UK our military are certainly less dangerous (I suspect it has something to do with the feeling of being the number one power, as the US feels, and as the UK used to), but our political leaders, as we saw with Blair and Iraq, are more unhinged. I remain permanently perplexed and depressed at people’s inability to place peace higher up their list of priorities when looking at the specimens of humanity who parade before them in search of votes.

  16. Tom says...

    Hopefully this will never happen. But notice how many of the right wingers in the US keep saying that torture is a great idea. From Trump on down to the head of the CIA to many powerful Congresspeople. Yes, this even includes some Democrats. Yet, not one of them takes it a step further. This is just like the death penalty. To prove that it’s an effective deterrant, we’ll show torture sessions on live TV.

    But you can’t do that. That’s in bad taste. Families will be watching. Little kids.
    But it’s effective. If you really believe it, then show it.

    Remember Christopher Hitchens? He actually thought it would be a great idea to be waterboarded on live TV. He did it and of course lasted for about 3 seconds. My point is this. Both accomplish nothing, and this double standard proves these right wingers hypocracy.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I recall Hitchens being waterboarded, Tom. That was actually quite a powerful demonstration of how waterboarding actually is a form of torture:
    Although you’re right to remark that many significant people from Trump downwards are enthusiasts for torture, I’m also reassured that many others are appalled by this misplaced enthusiasm, like James Mattis, Trump’s appointment as defence secretary, who told him bluntly that it wasn’t acceptable, and many, many others.

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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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