Mattis Makes Unannounced Visit to Guantanamo, First Pentagon Chief to Go There Since 2002

Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba / Getty Images

Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Thursday gave a pep talk to American troops at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, marking the first time a Pentagon chief visited there since Donald Rumsfeld in 2002.

Mattis told an assembly of several hundred troops that they must always be ready for war and said the U.S "need[s] you to be at the top of your game," citing their roles both as a fighting force and as a positive example to America of how to work together, the Associated Press first reported.

The Pentagon chief, whose visit was unannounced, did not discuss the Trump administration's plans for the base's detention center, where 41 prisoners remain. The AP noted that, of those 41 individuals, 10 have been charged by a military commission; five have been cleared to leave, but their status is in doubt under the administration; and 26 are currently in indefinite confinement, though some could later be cleared for release or prosecuted.

Former President Barack Obama had vowed to close the military prison, where suspected terrorists have been held since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but he was unable to get sufficient congressional support. Many members of Congress opposed the idea of relocating prisoners at Guantanamo to high-security prisons on the United States mainland.

The Obama administration transferred several Guantanamo detainees to other countries, lowering the prison population from 242 to its current figure. President Donald Trump has pledged to keep the detention center and open and indicated he may add more prisoners.

Mattis is not the first Cabinet member of the Trump administration to visit Guantanamo; Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited there in July.

Mattis traveled to Guantanamo to offer holiday greetings and thanked the soldiers for their service. The Pentagon chief is known for his Christmas spirit: when stationed at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, then-Brig. Gen. Mattis took the watch that normally went to a junior officer on Christmas so that the junior officer could spend time with his young family.