AG pays visit to Guan­tanamo Bay

He’s given tour of mil­i­tary prison Obama sought to close


WASH­ING­TON — At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions vis­ited Guan­tanamo Bay on Fri­day in a show of sup­port for the prison he has called a “per­fectly ac­cept­able” place to detain new ter­ror­ism sus­pects, as op­posed to hold­ing them in the U.S. and hav­ing his own Jus­tice De­part­ment try them in civil­ian courts.

Ses­sions trav­eled to the mil­i­tary de­ten­tion cen­ter in Cuba with his deputy, Rod Rosen­stein, and Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­tor Dan Coats to gain “an up-to-date un­der­stand­ing of cur­rent op­er­a­tions,” Jus­tice De­part­ment spokesman Ian Prior said. It was Ses­sions’ first trip there since be­com­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“Re­cent at­tacks in Europe and else­where con­firm that the threat to our na­tion is im­me­di­ate and real, and it re­mains es­sen­tial that we use ev­ery law­ful tool avail­able to pre­vent as many at­tacks as pos­si­ble,” Prior said.

The first stop was the war court com­pound where the Pen­tagon holds pre­trial hear­ings in cases against de­tainees. A court hear­ing was post­poned un­til the af­ter­noon to ac­com­mo­date the visit.

Even as a se­na­tor from Alabama, Ses­sions was long a vo­cal sup­porter of the con­tin­ued use of Guan­tanamo and its mil­i­tary com­mis­sions, call­ing it a “very fine place for hold­ing th­ese kind of dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals.”

“We’ve spent a lot of money fix­ing it up,” Ses­sions told the con­ser­va­tive ra­dio talk show host Hugh He­witt in a March in­ter­view. “And I’m in­clined to the view that it re­mains a per­fectly ac­cept­able place. And I think the fact is that a lot of the crit­i­cisms have just been to­tally ex­ag­ger­ated.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that he wanted the de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity to re­main open and promised to “load it up with some bad dudes.” But he has not pub­licly an­nounced any pol­icy on the prison’s fu­ture.

The em­brace of Guan­tanamo Bay now rep­re­sents a com­plete re­ver­sal of eight years of ef­forts to close the de­ten­tion cen­ter, which opened on the base in Jan­uary 2002 to hold and in­ter­ro­gate sus­pected en­emy com­bat­ants.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion sent no new de­tainees there, and though it didn’t ful­fill a prom­ise to shut it down, it whit­tled the pop­u­la­tion from 242 to 41. That in­cludes seven de­tainees fac­ing charges by mil­i­tary com­mis­sions. All are in the pre­trial stage, in­clud­ing the five men ac­cused of plan­ning and aid­ing in the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tack.

Obama’s Jus­tice De­part­ment main­tained that the U.S. civil­ian court sys­tem was the most legally sound fo­rum in which to pros­e­cute ter­ror sus­pects cap­tured in the U.S. and over­seas and cited hun­dreds of con­vic­tions in New York and other cities as proof.

Ses­sions and other Repub­li­cans have long ex­pressed con­cern that civil­ian courts af­ford le­gal pro­tec­tions to which sus­pected ter­ror­ists are not en­ti­tled. He has warned that valu­able in­tel­li­gence can be lost if a de­tainee is ad­vised of his right to re­main silent and to have a lawyer.

Rosen­stein, how­ever, has said he ex­pects ter­ror­ism cases to be han­dled through civil­ian tri­als.

For­mer At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder sought un­suc­cess­fully in 2009 to move Khalid Sheikh Mo­hammed, sus­pected to be the ring­leader of the Sept. 11 at­tacks, and four al­leged co-con­spir­a­tors from Guan­tanamo to New York for trial. Though the plan was de­railed by po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, Holder has since ex­pressed vin­di­ca­tion as the mil­i­tary tri­bunal sys­tem at Guan­tanamo stalled. It is likely to be years be­fore the men go be­fore a jury of mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

The other mil­i­tary com­mis­sion death penalty case, of the al­leged mas­ter­mind of the deadly Oc­to­ber 2000 bomb­ing at­tack on the USS Cole in Ye­men, has been sim­i­larly bogged down for years in pre­trial lit­i­ga­tion. Both have stalled largely due to is­sues re­lated to the fact that the de­fen­dants were held for years in clan­des­tine CIA fa­cil­i­ties and sub­jected to treat­ment now widely re­garded as tor­ture.

Other at­tor­neys gen­eral have vis­ited the site, in­clud­ing Michael Mukasey for Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2008 and Holder for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2009. This visit, com­ing more than five months into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — even as the White House has yet to of­fi­cially re­scind Obama’s 2009 clo­sure or­der — may be seen as a sig­nal of sup­port for the de­ten­tion op­er­a­tion.

The one-day visit was an­nounced hours be­fore a Saudi man was due at the war court for a pre­sen­tenc­ing hear­ing. Ahmed al-Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes in Fe­bru­ary 2014, in ex­change for a com­mit­ment to let him serve out his sen­tence of up to 15 years in his home­land start­ing next year.

Even as a se­na­tor from Alabama, Ses­sions was long a vo­cal sup­porter of the con­tin­ued use of Guan­tanamo and its mil­i­tary com­mis­sions, call­ing it a “very fine place for hold­ing th­ese kind of dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals.”

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Sadie Gurman and Ben Fox of The As­so­ci­ated Press and by Carol Rosen­berg of the Mi­ami Her­ald.


At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, shown speak­ing in June in Bethesda, Md., has long been a sup­porter of hold­ing ter­ror­ism de­tainees in Guan­tanamo Bay.

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