For the first time as leaders of the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are visiting the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, underscoring Sessions’ long-held belief that the detention facility there should be used to jail terrorism suspects, potentially including those arrested on U.S. soil.
"Keeping this country safe from terrorists is the highest priority of the Trump administration," a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement about today’s trip. "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."
"In addition to the Department of Justice’s role in handling detainee-related litigation, it is important for the Department of Justice to have an up-to-date understanding of current operations," the Justice Department spokesman said. "The purpose of the trip is to gain that understanding by meeting with the people on the ground who are leading our government-wide efforts at [Guantanamo Bay]."
Among the facility’s most notorious detainees are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
The Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, insisting its continued use had become a recruitment tool for terrorist groups.
In late 2009, then-attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to prosecute the five alleged co-conspirators in a New York federal court. As a sitting U.S. senator at the time, Sessions repeatedly voiced his own opposition to the effort, and the Obama administration’s plans were ultimately panned by New York officials and blocked by Congress.
Holder, however, later insisted he had been vindicated by "the facts and events that have occurred since." In particular, due to what critics see as an untested and unwieldy military court system, the case has been stalled for years by haggling over pretrial arrangements.
All five terror suspects "would be on death row as we speak" if politics hadn’t gotten in the way, Holder told reporters in November 2013.
"I think that what we have seen over these [recent] years – not to be egocentric about this – but that I was right," Holder said.
Nevertheless, during his own confirmation hearing to take over the post once held by Holder, Sessions made clear his belief that the U.S. facility in Cuba should remain open and continue to detain foreign terrorists.
"I think it’s designed for that purpose," Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. "It fits that purpose marvelously well; it’s a safe place to keep prisoners; we’ve invested a lot of money in that; and I believe it should be utilized in that fashion and have opposed the closing of it."