Donald Trump Is Still Trying to Work Out How to Expand the Use of Guantánamo Rather Than Closing It for Good


Opponents of Guantanamo urge Donald Trump to close the prison in a poster campaign rugby the Close Guantanamo campaign, which began on the day of his inauguration.

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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.

In a dispiriting sign of counter-productive obstinacy on the part of the Trump administration, the New York Times recently reported that, according to Trump administration officials who are “familiar with internal deliberations,” the administration is “making a fresh attempt at drafting an executive order on handling terrorism detainees.” As Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman described it, these efforts “reviv[e] a struggle to navigate legal and geopolitical obstacles” to expand the use of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which opened over 15 and a half years ago.

Drafts of proposed executive orders relating to Guantánamo had been leaked in Trump’s first week in office, although, as the Times noted, “Congress and military and intelligence officials pushed back against ideas in early drafts, like reopening the CIA’s overseas ‘black site’ prisons where the Bush administration tortured terrorism suspects.” As a result, the White House “dropped that and several other ideas, but as the drafts were watered down, momentum to finish the job faltered.”

Alarmingly, however, Savage and Goldman noted that the Trump administration officials they spoke to told them that Trump “had been expected to sign a detention policy order three weeks ago,” and that the plan only “changed after he fired his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, on July 28 and replaced him with John F. Kelly,” a retired Marine Corps general who was the commander of US Southern Command, which oversees prison operations at Guantánamo, from November 2012 to January 2016.

Kelly had clashed with Obama administration officials about Guantánamo, and as the Washington Post noted in July, the relationship between him and the Obama White House “had become so strained that, in the weeks before he retired, multiple administration officials went to the media and accused Kelly and other military leaders of endeavoring to undermine [Obama’s] Guantánamo closure plan.”

Despite this, the officials said that “on July 31 — Mr. Kelly’s first day — the National Security Council announced that the White House wanted a new round of interagency deliberations” before issuing a new executive order. The Times reported that the message “came during a secure video teleconference with counterterrorism strategy and legal officials at military, diplomatic and intelligence agencies,” with the agencies “asked to consider three potential versions of the order and make recommendations” by the middle of August.

The Times explained that the first of the three versions “was the version that Mr. Trump was preparing to sign three weeks ago,” which “would reverse a January 2009 order by President Barack Obama that directed the government to close the prison, and make clear that the Trump administration’s policy was instead to keep it open indefinitely.” According to an official who spoke to the Times, this first version “would also say that Guantánamo could be used to hold accused members of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State,” even though transferring Islamic State suspects to Guantánamo “would defy warnings by national security and legal officials about creating legal risks for the broader military campaign underway in Iraq and Syria.”

The second version, according to the official who spoke to the Times, “would add language that says the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, may bring newly captured terrorism suspects to the prison … explicitly grant[ing] an authority that is merely implicit or ambiguous in the first version,” while the third version “would direct Mr. Mattis to establish criteria about which new detainees should be brought to the prison,” and “would also make clear that new arrivals would be given periodic reviews by a six-agency parole-like board that recommends whether to keep holding or to transfer detainees” — and which have been in operation for the existing Guantánamo prisoners since 2013.

Another official described as being “familiar with internal deliberations” said that Trump was “unlikely to sign any detention order for several weeks because the changes may be wrapped into a broader counterterrorism policy review that is underway.” It was also noted that a spokesman for the National Security Council “declined to comment.”

The proposals are no less troubling now than they were when first floated in January, and it is to be hoped that an executive order reviving Guantánamo doesn’t materialize. As the Times noted, to date the administration “has brought no new detainees to Guantánamo, despite Mr. Trump’s campaign vow to fill the prison back up,” and this is clearly a situation that is encouraging for legal experts, who have expressed profound and repeated doubts about the legality of bringing any new prisoners to Guantánamo, as well as pointing out that federal courts remain the only reliable venue for prosecutions, and for any country with which the US wishes to have a constructive relationship.

As the Times explained, “European and Middle Eastern allies will not transfer detainees to the United States without a promise they will not be sent to Guantánamo,” noting that, last month, “Spain transferred custody of a terrorism suspect, Ali Charaf Damache, whom the Trump administration brought to federal court in Philadelphia for a civilian trial,” while, in the case of an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Khaybar, “held in Yemen by an unidentified Middle Eastern ally,” the administration’s efforts to secure his transfer have floundered because, according to current and former law enforcement officials, those holding him, “while willing to transfer [him], will not do so if his destination would be Guantánamo.”

A Washington Post editorial condemning Trump’s plans

In an editorial on Sunday, the Washington Post weighed in with unambiguous criticism of Trump’s plans. In Bringing new detainees to Guantánamo would be a grave mistake, the Post’s editors reminded readers — and the administration — that, after the executive order was leaked in January, “Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo disavowed the draft after it was leaked to the press, and the order — which also called for a policy review on the possible reopening of secret CIA prisons around the globe — was never signed.”

Noting that “the administration is trying again,” with an interagency group “drafting a policy that would reverse President Barack Obama’s decree calling for the closure of the prison and authorize Mr. Mattis to bring suspected terrorists to Guantánamo,” the Post’s editors stated, bluntly and accurately, “This would be a grave mistake.”

The editors proceeded to welcome the fact that “none of the policies currently under consideration float a return to the use of CIA prisons — a practice which did great damage to the United States’ international reputation after 9/11” — but pointed out that, “even absent this provision, an executive order authorizing newly captured prisoners to be detained at Guantánamo would risk alienating US allies.” Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we also believe it would have been reassuring to see the editors add that what has been happening at Guantánamo since 2002 is also an affront to values the US claims to hold dear.

In further explanation of their position, the Post’s editors stated, “Domestically, detaining ISIS fighters at the prison would be an invitation to years of risky litigation over the scope of government authority in the battle against the Islamic State,” adding that “short-sighted congressional restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantánamo, along with a system for trying detainees by military commission that has proved painfully slow and mired in legal confusion, could consign any new detainees to custody without trial for decades.” As the editors added, “The military judge in the case against the 9/11 attackers has yet to even set a trial date.”

The Post’s editors also noted, accurately, that, in contrast to the mess at Guantánamo, the government “has had relative success in prosecuting terrorism suspects in federal court,” proceeding to explain that, in July, “the Trump administration itself extradited a suspected al Qaeda recruiter from Spain to face criminal charges — Ali Charaf Damache, a dual Algerian and Irish citizen, who was  brought to a federal court in Philadelphia.

The Post’s editors also noted another, more troubling case as an “indication of the viability of criminal prosecutions,” referring to the case of Ahmed Abu Khattala, “the accused ringleader of the 2012 attacks on an American compound in Libya,” who was interrogated aboard a ship sailing to the United States for three days following his capture in 2014. Just two weeks ago, a federal judge ruled in the government’s favor in the case. The arrangement, as the Post’s editors described it, “allowed government interrogators [from the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, set up under President Obama, and consisting of military, intelligence and law enforcement officials] to question Mr. Khattala to gain intelligence before advising him of his right to remain silent, then inform him of his rights and restart the questioning with a new team of officials [from the FBI] in order to build a criminal case against him.” As the editors proceeded to explain, “In holding that prosecutors could use Mr. Khattala’s statements after being read his rights, the court showed that criminal trials need not preclude the intelligence gathering that can be valuable for preventing attacks.”

The editors added, “To be sure, this system is far from perfect,” acknowledging that the judge in Mr. Khattala’s case “hinted that the government may face restrictions on its ability to conduct lengthy interrogations at sea,” but not mentioning how the system of interrogation without rights, followed by a second interrogation by a so-called “clean team” of FBI agents, echoed what took place at the “black sites” and Guantánamo with the so-called “high-value detainees,” to the dismay of many lawyers and legal experts (and ourselves).

Despite our caveats about aspects of the US’s detention policy under Obama, as well as under Trump, we agree wholeheartedly with the Post’s editors’ observation that these cases “demonstrate that the United States can fight terrorism without compounding the tragic mistakes of Guantánamo Bay,” and that “Mr. Trump would be wise to pay attention.”

We hope Donald Trump and his officials are listening.

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, analyzing the most recent report in the New York Times about Donald Trump’s continued intention to officially keep Guantanamo open (which, of course, I continue to oppose with every fiber of my being), and, in addition, to send new Al-Qaeda and Islamic State prisoners there, despite warnings from numerous experts that he doesn’t have the authorization to do so. I fervently hope this plan is quashed, in common with the editors of the Washington Post, whose recent editorial opposing Trump’s plans I also draw on. If Trump is not to be swayed, then we need to be prepared to mount a major campaign of resistance.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Julisa Wescott wrote:


  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    keep up the good fight, Andy!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the support, Julisa and Rose.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    I wish he and all his cronies were sentenced to life there .. and let everyone in there now free

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Natalya. As with so much in US politics in the last eight months, it’s depressing that such a deranged imbecile is president, and that the Republican Party has become such an uncaring right-wing embarrassment. After all these years of unjustifiable injustice, Trump and the party he nominally leads are the last things we needed in charge of Guantanamo.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    As I wrote yesterday when I posted this on, thanks to everyone paying attention to this story, which deserves much more coverage than it’s getting. I’m in discussions with other activists about what we can do if Trump’s planned idiocy comes to fruition, and welcome your thoughts. If you’re in the US, are you willing and able to engage in a protest outside the White House?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    On another note, Carol Rosenberg reported for the Miami Herald last week about the Pentagon’s drive to spend nearly $500m at Guantanamo. As she stated, “Behind the scenes, the U.S. military is planning for nearly a half-billion dollars in new construction during the Trump administration, including a Navy request to build a $250 million, five-bed hospital here that has been singled out for study by a Senate committee. Despite President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to reduce costs at the remote U.S. Navy base — at one point he mused that his new Cuba policy might import cheap, local labor from across the minefield — the Pentagon’s appetite to spend at this outpost of about 5,500 residents and 41 wartime prisoners continues undated.”

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the Associated Press on how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress on Monday of his proposals to get rid of a number of special envoy positions, including the role relating to the closure of Guantanamo:

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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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