President Donald Trump has never been particularly lucid on the subject of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He is for it, of course. Early last year, at a campaign rally, he said, “I watched President Obama talking about Gitmo, right, Guantánamo Bay, which, by the way, which, by the way, we are keeping open. Which we are keeping open . . . and we’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.” This cartoonish threat raised the question of where or in which putative wars the United States would find these new inmates. Trump seemed to think, in a later interview, that he could send Americans accused of terrorism to Guantánamo to be tried by military commissions. But American citizens cannot, by law, be held at Guantánamo. Details, for Trump.
President Barack Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo, after having vowed to do so, was one of the sharper disappointments of his Administration. A draft of a Trump executive order, first leaked in January, which, among other things, cancels Obama’s 2009 order to close the prison, has been making the rounds. It orders the detention at Guantánamo of suspected members of “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, including individuals and networks associated with the Islamic State.” Again, it is unclear where these detainees would come from, since even allies engaged in ground wars with these groups would almost certainly be unwilling to hand over prisoners for transfer to Guantánamo. The prison’s reputation could hardly be worse. Along with Abu Ghraib, it is viewed around the globe, and especially among the world’s Muslims, as a byword for American hypocrisy, brutality, and injustice.
To call Guantánamo a recruiting tool for jihadists is a political commonplace. And yet ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other jihadist groups do still employ it to great effect. James Foley, the American journalist who was captured and, in 2014, executed by ISIS, in Syria, told a Spanish fellow-prisoner that their captors had long wanted to create a kind of Guantánamo for their Western hostages. ISIS puts its foreign prisoners in orange jumpsuits, including for their executions, a gesture whose symbolism is lost on no one in the Islamic world. Even the Bush Administration, to some degree, came to understand Guantánamo as a strategic and moral fiasco, and began reducing the prisoner population, from a peak of six hundred and eighty-four, in 2003. Obama inherited two hundred and forty-two prisoners. He left office with forty-one still in place.
President Trump woke up on Tuesday and tweeted, “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!” This was early, 7:04 A.M., and he was apparently just repeating something he had half-seen, and not understood, on “Fox and Friends.” According to the director of national intelligence, who is required to track former detainees, of the hundred and twenty-two ex-prisoners confirmed as having “reengaged,” a hundred and thirteen were released by the Bush Administration. Only nine people released by Obama have reëngaged, with another eleven suspected of doing so. This mistake was widely reported, and acknowledged by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, in response to reporters’ questions. Weirdly, however, it remains on both the President’s personal Twitter feed and his official one, linked to the White House Web site. Have the people around the President decided that, even in the most visible settings—on his official social-media account, for Christ’s sake—it’s simply not worth bothering Trump with the facts? If he prefers his own misreading of a Fox News infographic to information actually gathered by American intelligence agencies, that’s O.K.?
Other White House officials are also butchering the numbers when it comes to the existential threat, as they see it, of Islamist terrorism. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the President, and one of several aides who came over from Breitbart News, appeared on “Fox and Friends” (where else?) recently, and argued for the expansion of the prison at Guantánamo. Gorka, too, exaggerated the recidivism rate among ex-detainees, saying, “President Obama released lots and lots of people that were there for very good reason, and what happened? Almost half the time they returned to the battlefield.” Again, the rate of reëngagement for prisoners released by Obama is just over five per cent. Not fifty. Gorka doesn’t have the excuse of simply knowing nothing about the topic. His most recent book is “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War,” and he seems to spend most of his waking hours on TV raising the alarm about the Sharia menace. Stephen Miller, a senior White House policy adviser, previously known mostly for leading chants of “Lock her up!” at Trump campaign rallies, went on the Sunday talk shows last month to defend the President’s Muslim travel ban. Miller claimed that seventy-two people from the seven countries covered by the first version of the ban “have been implicated in terroristic activity in the United States” since the September 11th attacks. FactCheck.org reviewed Miller’s cited source and found that, of the seventy-two cases, only three people were convicted of terrorist plots on U.S. soil, and two of those were sting operations.
There is a threat-exaggeration pattern here. Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national-security adviser, is an unabashed Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist. Flynn’s replacement, H. R. McMaster, is a more mainstream, reality-based strategist, as is the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. And yet the apocalyptic, war-of-civilizations current still runs deep in the inner circle of the Trump Administration. The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, won the 2015 “Keeper of the Flame” award from the Center for Security Policy, a fiercely anti-Muslim group. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, in a 2014 speech at a conference at the Vatican, said, “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global.” These dark views find fertile ground in the Administration of a fact-challenged President who, in a Republican primary-campaign debate last spring, declared flatly, “Islam hates us.” Filling a hellish tropical prison with Muslim “bad dudes” appeals, for obvious reasons, to this mindset.
It won’t work, though, and not only because it would require a new ground war to capture a new generation of enemy combatants. (In truth, most of the original Guantánamo detainees were not captured by American forces, but were instead purchased from local bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hence the troubling number of baffled farmers, taxi drivers, and Uighur migrants from China locked up for months and years.) The military commissions created to try Guantánamo cases were hopelessly designed. For a nation that insisted, after the Second World War, over the objections of its allies, on the world-historic legal proceedings that became known as the Nuremberg trials, the Guantánamo military commissions are a disgrace. In fifteen years, they’ve won only eight convictions; three were overturned on appeal, and another one was partially overturned.
Meanwhile, federal civilian criminal courts have convicted, since September 11, 2001, more than five hundred and fifty people on terrorism-related charges. The yearly cost to taxpayers of a prisoner in a maximum-security federal prison is seventy-eight thousand dollars. The latest estimate of Guantánamo’s yearly cost to taxpayers is at least four hundred and forty-five million dollars, for a facility that now holds only forty-one detainees. Beyond the obscene expense, and the shameful injustice of indefinite detention, the Guantánamo road is no way to win a war. Federal prosecutors and federal law enforcement have a long, successful record of flipping defendants through plea bargains, using them to get to bigger targets. Fighting terrorism, even more than fighting organized crime, is above all a matter of unravelling networks through coöperators. This process has stalled—in many ways, it never got off the ground—at Guantánamo. In the criminal-justice system, however, it has played a critical, necessarily quiet role in preventing, inshallah, another major attack.