The following editorial appeared in Friday’s Washington Post.
After boasting during his presidential campaign that he would “load” up the Guantanamo Bay prison with “bad dudes,” President Donald Trump refrained during his first year from sending terrorism suspects to the notorious facility in Cuba. He appeared, to his credit, to have absorbed the central lesson of Guantanamo’s history since early 2002: that holding and trying detainees there is far harder and more time-consuming than in the U.S. federal court system, even as it exposes the United States to damaging criticism from allies and easy propaganda victories for enemies.
Since Trump took office, at least two foreign terrorism suspects have been brought to the United States and charged in federal courts, including one militant accused in the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. After first suggesting that a suspect accused of a terrorist attack in New York last October would be sent to Guantanamo, Trump tweeted that he “would love to ... but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the federal system.” Correct.
It was therefore disappointing to hear Trump renew his commitment to Guantanamo in his State of the Union address Tuesday. Reversing a 2009 order by President Barack Obama to close the facility – which was never implemented because of congressional opposition – Trump ordered Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to conduct a study of detention policies for terrorism suspects, “including policies governing the transfer of individuals to Guantanamo.”
Trump cast this as “keeping another promise” to his voters, which suggests he might have been striking a political pose. We hope so. If he is serious about sending prisoners to Guantanamo, the administration will be not simply making a mistake, but repeating one of the most conspicuous errors of the war on terrorism.
In dispatching more than 700 detainees to Guantanamo, President George W. Bush incited a storm of international criticism, handed a recruitment tool to al-Qaida – and failed to bring the authors of the 9/11 attacks to justice. Five principals in the plot were charged in 2012, but their military commission trials are hopelessly bogged down and may not be completed for years. In contrast, federal prosecutors have obtained more than 600 convictions in terrorism cases since 2001, including, in November, that of Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leader of the Benghazi attacks.
The Bush administration, and the Obama administration after it, eventually released most of the Guantanamo inmates, having no case against them. Trump inaccurately complained that “hundreds and hundreds” had returned to terrorist activity, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who became the leader of the Islamic State; in fact, the militant leader was never in Guantanamo and was released by Iraqi authorities.
The Trump administration is right to seek to detain terrorist leaders where possible, interrogate them and put them on trial. If it tries to do so at Guantanamo, it will quickly become mired in new legal problems, including whether it has the authority under U.S. law to detain Islamic State fighters there. Trump spoke vaguely of asking Congress for new legislation; if that means seeking explicit authorization for military action against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, it would be a step forward. But Congress should not facilitate a self-defeating return to detentions at Guantanamo.