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 facility 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.
Even as an Alabama senator, Sessions has long been 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 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. The Obama administration sent no new detainees there, and though it didn't fulfill a promise to shut it down, whittled the population from 242 to 41. That includes seven currently facing charges by military commissions. All are in the pretrial stage, including the five men charged with 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.
Yet 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 the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 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.
Sessions lamented delays in the military system, telling Hewitt it is time to "get this thing figured out."
"By now, we should have worked through all the legal complications that the Obama administration seemed to allow to linger and never get decided, so nothing ever happened," he said. But, he added, "In general, I don't think we're better off bringing these people to federal court in New York and trying them in federal court where they get discovery rights to find out our intelligence, and get court-appointed lawyers and things of that nature."
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.