Washington (AFP) – Top US justice and intelligence officials are to visit the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Friday amid signs the Trump administration may use it to house new “war on terror” detainees.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, are visiting the prison to familiarize themselves with current operations, officials said.
The notorious prison, which former president Barack Obama had sought unsuccessfully to close, has had no new inmates in more than a decade.
But on taking office, President Donald Trump signaled he wanted an active camp ready to accept “some bad dudes” that might be captured in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.
“Keeping this country safe from terrorists is the highest priority of the Trump administration,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement.
“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.”
Coats’ spokesman Timothy Barrett said the purpose of the trip “is to gain an understanding of current operations by meeting with the people on the ground.”
At the height of its operations after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the prison held 780 people detained mostly for their alleged ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, including some of those who planned the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Since then hundreds have been transferred back to their home countries or other places, and the inmate population currently stands at 41, many of them viewed as hardened enemies of the country who cannot be freed.
Some of the most notorious, including several alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, including accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are still awaiting trial.
Around 26 inmates are trapped in legal purgatory. These so-called “forever prisoners” have never been charged — yet they have been deemed too dangerous to release.
After almost 11 years in the prison, last month Guantanamo war court prosecutors charged Indonesian Al Qaeda suspect Riduan Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, with plotting a 2002 attack on a nightclub in Bali, and an attack on the Jakarta JW Marriott hotel the next year, that together left more than 200 people dead.
It is not known whether US authorities are currently holding any detainees abroad for transfer to Guantanamo, amid ongoing US and ally operations against Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in several countries.
Trump has provided few specifics about his Guantanamo plans, but a draft executive order that leaked from the White House in late January called the facility a “critical tool” in the fight against “radical Islamist groups.”
Sessions has made clear his support for keeping the prison open.
Asked in March by radio host Hugh Hewitt on whether it should remain available for new detainees, he called the facility “a perfect place for it.”
“There’s plenty of space,” he said. “I see no legal problem whatsoever with doing that.”