PENTAGON — The U.S. Defense Department has announced conditions under which it will resume sending suspected terrorists caught on the battlefield to its detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the first time in more than a decade.
Pentagon officials sent the updated guidance to the White House Wednesday, backing President Donald Trump’s decision to reverse course and keep the U.S. military prison open.
“The Secretary of Defense has provided the White House with an updated policy governing the criteria for transfer of individuals to the detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay,” Defense Department spokeswoman Commander Sarah Higgins said in a statement.
“This policy provides our war fighters guidance on nominating detainees for transfer to Guantanamo detention should that person present a continuing, significant threat to the security of the United States,” she said.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, signed an executive order in 2009 ordering that the detention facility be shut down. During his time in office the number of detainees was reduced from 242 to just 41, all of whom have been there siince the administration of former President George W. Bush.
One of those, a Saudi national, was transferred Wednesday to Saudi Arabia where he will complete a 13-year sentence for his role in an attack of a French ship.
President Trump pledged to keep the facility open while campaigning for president and signed an executive order this past January giving the Defense Department 90 days to update its policy on how to handle terrorists captured on the battlefield.
Announcing the decision during his State of the Union address, Trump said the U.S. needed “all necessary power to detain terrorists” in its fight against Islamic State and al-Qaida.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, signed an executive order in 2009 ordering that the detention facility be shut down.
Human rights groups have been critical of the facility and of Trump’s decision to keep it open.
“In trying to give new life to a prison that symbolizes America’s descent into torture and unlawful indefinite detention, Trump will not make this country any safer,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in January.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has expressed confidence in the detention center’s ability to hold terrorist fighters humanely while helping to ensure the security and safety of the U.S.
“It’s open, and I am absolutely certain that there is not one thing going on down there that would not be in accordance with the international protocol — the Geneva protocol,” he told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
The fate of the detention facility has taken on additional importance as U.S. and coalition operations against the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria begin to wind down.
Currently, U.S.-backed forces in Syria are holding more than 400 IS foreign fighters.
“We have been engaging with their home countries,” Mattis said.
“In some cases, those countries have stripped them of their citizenship, so they have a different view as far as to what their status is today,” Mattis added. “So this is not simple.”
President George W. Bush opened Guantanamo after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to hold and interrogate suspected enemy combatants.
At the height of its operations, the prison held 780 people, mostly inmates with alleged ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Since then, hundreds have been transferred to their home countries or to other nations that agreed to accept them.
Obama tried unsuccessfully to close the prison during his eight years in office. He sent no new detainees to the facility during his administration and reduced the number of prisoners to 41.
Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.