During his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump announced the issuance of an executive order that ignored the conclusion shared by both the Obama and Bush administrations: The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does more harm to the United States than good.
The new executive order revokes the Obama administration’s official policy to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay “as soon as practicable” and paves the way for new, additional detainees to be added to the existing detainee population. Such steps exacerbate the negative effects of the facility’s continued operation.
U.S. national security and our nation’s image across the world are undermined as long as the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is open. Adversaries continue to use Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool in propaganda texts and speeches, and national security officials in the Obama administration have noted ISIS’ use of orange jumpsuits for its hostages draws parallels to detainee garments once used at Guantanamo Bay.
Additionally, the continuing operation of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay complicates our relationship with the international community and weakens our ability to champion the rule of law and due process. While the facility today is safe and humane, the abuses that took place in its early years of operation still resonate abroad in a negative way. Our diplomats often hear criticisms about American detention practices, and allies may be less likely to cooperate and share intelligence — including on extraditions of wanted individuals to the United States and other persons of interest — if they suspect individuals captured will be sent to a facility that is perceived to be inconsistent with democratic values.
Currently, a key group of Trump’s national security team, led by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, has 90 days to develop policy recommendations for “the disposition of newly captured individuals.” The recommendation from this group should be clear: The U.S. government must use existing, alternative tools — with particular emphasis on the role of the U.S. federal justice system — to process and detain any individuals captured in connection with armed conflict, including the 41 individuals currently remaining in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
It is true that there will continue to be a need to capture and detain individuals during armed conflict — but the United States can effectively manage such detainees using available policy and judicial instruments, including transfer to the custody of a foreign partner nation, prosecution in U.S. federal courts, and federal detention.
The United States has already transferred more than 700 detainees to foreign partners during the Obama and Bush administrations. The Trump administration should continue to transfer responsibly detainees to a foreign partner where possible and with agreement on necessary security assurances.
Despite heavy criticism from many quarters, including Trump, the U.S. federal justice system has proven more than capable of handling terrorism cases. Last fall alone, four key terrorism trials were held across the country and federal courts have convicted more than 600 individuals in terrorism cases since 9/11, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, and countless al-Qaeda members.
Of course, there are individuals — such as some of the 41 remaining in Guantanamo Bay — that cannot be transferred to a foreign partner or prosecuted. In that case — as Paul Lewis, former Department of Defense Special Envoy for Guantanamo Detention Closure, writes — detainees should be transferred to federal facilities. Federal prisons on U.S. soil have been more than capable in securing and holding inmates convicted on terrorism charges. American prisons safely and securely hold hundreds of convicted terrorists in facilities across the country.
Re-emphasizing the role of Guantanamo Bay in American detainee operations and opening the door to new detainees transported to the facility damages U.S. national security and our nation’s image around the world. Secretary Mattis and Trump’s national security team must not increase the facility’s role but rather develop responsible policies for the disposition of detainees. After all, the United States will still have a need for detainee operations as it continues to be militarily engaged overseas. Our leadership must take this opportunity to develop policies that preserve our national security, strengthen our relationships with international partners, and uphold our values. It remains to be seen if they will.