President-elect Donald Trump called Tuesday for the end of all detainee releases from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying in a tweet that those who remain are “extremely dangerous people” who “should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.”
There should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
The statement comes as the Obama administration prepares to release another 19 detainees from the facility before the president leaves office. Currently, there are 59 detainees at the prison, including four people who also have been cleared for release by an interagency review board but are not a part of the group of 19 and could remain detained there indefinitely. Their names have not been released.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to discuss whether the administration is preparing to release any additional detainees, but he and other U.S. officials said Trump’s statement won’t change the current administration’s plans.
“There is one commander in chief at a time, and the secretary of defense will continue to carry out his responsibilities as he sees appropriate,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook.
The remaining detainees include about 10 who have been charged in military commissions, including five accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. There also is a group of what are known as “forever prisoners,” who the U.S. government maintains must remain in custody because of the continuing threat they pose but who cannot be tried because of a lack of court-worthy evidence.
Human rights advocates have criticized President Obama for not following through on a campaign promise to close the prison, but his administration’s attempts to do so have been met by significant opposition in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security, was among the chief opponents to closing the prison while overseeing it as chief of U.S. Southern Command from November 2012 until last January.
U.S. officials have said that about 30 percent of released detainees are suspected to have returned to the battlefield, including at least 12 freed during the administration of President George W. Bush who went on to launch attacks that killed about a half-dozen Americans. The exact number remains classified.
Obama administration officials have noted that recidivism among those once held at Guantanamo is lower than among federal offenders in the United States and the prison is used as a recruitment tool by Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Most of those suspected of returning to the battlefield are from Afghanistan, reflecting the large number of people from there who were detained after the 9/11 attacks. More than 200 Afghan detainees have been repatriated from the prison.
The Obama administration has repatriated or resettled 179 prisoners, cutting the population from 242 when Bush left office. At its peak, the detention center housed more than 700 prisoners.
In the most recent release, the Pentagon transferred a 35-year-old Yemeni, Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, to the government of Cape Verde on Dec. 4. Defense officials said that continuing to hold him was not necessary “to protect against a continuing significant threat” to the United States. The detainee was captured by Pakistani security forces in 2002 in a raid on homes where al-Qaeda teams were planning attacks on hotels in Karachi, according to U.S. military documents.
The largest release to date occurred in August, when the United States transferred 15 detainees to the United Arab Emirates.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.