Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with troops at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a surprise visit Thursday, one of several stops he will make on a holiday tour of military installations.
Mattis, who was accompanied by a single Associated Press reporter, went to Guantanamo only to visit troops there, not to inspect the facilities or discuss detention policy, Pentagon officials said. He is the first secretary of defense to visit the controversial base since Donald Rumsfeld in early 2002, reports the AP.
After his stop in Guantanamo, Mattis will travel to meet with soldiers, Marines and sailors at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Ft. Bragg, N.C.; and the Mayport naval base in Jacksonville, Fla., according to defense officials.
Mattis’ visit to Guantanamo comes amid renewed interest in the future of the military prison. After a terrorist attack in New York in October, President Donald Trump suggested he would send the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, to Guantanamo as an enemy combatant. Saipov remians in federal custody awaiting trial for murder and terrorism charges.
Human rights groups continue to call on the Trump administration to close the Guantanamo prison facility and release or prosecute the detainees, a move that appears unlikely to happen. Trump has not released any prisoners or added any names to the list of detainees cleared to be returned to their home countries or resettled in a third country.
There are currently 41 prisoners at the Guantanamo facility: 26 in indefinite confinement, 10 charged by a military commission, and five who have been cleared to leave but remain imprisoned, according to the AP.
Mattis himself has said little publicly about the detention facilities at Guantanamo since taking office in January. The subject of the base did not come up during his confirmation hearing.
When asked if the U.S. should hold detainees indefinitely without trial, Mattis said: “Long-term detention is appropriate when an unprivileged enemy belligerent poses a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”
Other senior members of the Trump administration have expressed support for continuing to hold terror suspects at Guantanamo. After visiting the prison in July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it was a “perfectly acceptable” place to detain new enemy combatants.
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