WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday warned that the Trump administration reserved the right to prosecute terror suspects in military commissions set up at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Speaking to federal prosecutors in New York two days after a man killed eight people in a terror attack in lower Manhattan, Sessions said the administration would "use all lawful tools at our disposal, including prosecution in (federal) courts and at Guantanamo Bay.”
"If anyone has any doubt about that, they can ask the more than 500 criminals whom the Department of Justice has convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11," Sessions said. "And they can ask the dozens of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.”
Sessions did not specifically say whether he supported sending Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York terror attack, to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for trial but President Donald Trump raised the prospect on Wednesday, saying he would "certainly consider" the option.
Trump appeared to backtrack from the threat on Thursday, tweeting that while he "would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo, but statistically that process takes much longer" than trying him in federal court in the United States.
The military commissions set up at Guantanamo Bay after the attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington have secured the convictions of eight terrorism defendants out of a population of nearly 800 inmates. Three were subsequently overturned on appeal.
By contrast, of the 827 terror suspects prosecuted in federal courts since the September 11 attacks, 180 have been convicted while 534 have pleaded guilty, according to a database compiled by The Intercept.
The Guantanamo Bay facility has held 779 detainees during the time since it opened in January 2002 but the vast majority of the prisoners have been released and transferred to other countries, leaving 42 detainees there today, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Former president Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to close down the prison and send the detainees to a facility in the United States. The former president argued the detention facility was too costly and counterproductive because terrorists were using its existence as a recruitment tool.
But Trump and Sessions have been long supportive of keeping it open.
On the campaign trail last year, Trump promised to "load it up with some bad dudes." And after he became attorney general in February, Sessions called the facility "a very fine place for holding these kind of dangerous criminals”
Trump's suggestion to send Saipov to Guantanamo was supported by top Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain but drew fire from Democrats in Congress. Some critics argued that unlike other terror suspects held at Guantanamo, Saipov is a U.S. permanent resident with certain Constitutional protections.
Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday that "it would be a mistake" to try Saipov at Guantanamo.
"He should be tried in a criminal courtroom, as have hundreds of other terrorist suspects," Schiff said in a statement. "Far from the 'joke' which President Trump derided it as today, the civilian criminal justice system has a long, proven track record of imposing tough sentences on terrorists, through a process that is at once effective, fair, and respected throughout the world.”
In his speech to law enforcement officials in New York, Sessions offered full-throated support of Trump's anti-terror policies, including the president's controversial restrictions on travel from eight countries, most of them majority-Muslim, and his order in the wake of the New York City attack to implement "much tougher extreme vetting" of international travelers.
Trump was both right and had the legal authority to issue the travel ban, the attorney general said. Two courts have disagreed, placing the third version of the controversial order on hold until its constitutionality can be determined.
"President Trump made these decisions because he understands that we continue to face grave security threats from a number of groups and he is not afraid to talk openly and directly about it," Sessions said.
Trump's order to reduce the number of refugees coming into the U.S. "will reduce the likelihood of potentially dangerous people getting here" and will "take some of the pressure off of the FBI and our local law enforcement," Sessions said.