LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Over the past 16 years, the United States has kept hundreds of Muslim men locked up at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a holdover from the post-9/11 war on terror. Some 500 of them were released under President George W. Bush. And nearly 200 more got out under President Obama with an aim to closing the prison down. President Trump had this to say this past week in his State of the Union address.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2018 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am asking Congress to ensure that in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists wherever we chase them down, wherever we find them. And in many cases, for them, it will now be Guantanamo Bay.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Trump said he'd sign an executive order keeping Guantanamo open. Joining me now from Guantanamo is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Hi, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been going to Guantanamo frequently and following developments there for several years. Does Trump's new order to keep it open - is that going to change anything down there?
WELNA: Well, not really. More than anything, it's Trump saying that President Obama's order nine years ago to close this place down is now officially revoked. But in practice, Trump had already halted what had been a pretty steady outflow of prisoners from here under Obama. There were 41 inmates left when Trump took office. And there are still 41 inmates here today, even though five had previously been cleared for release by a kind of federal parole board. I think more than anything, this order was a kind of thumb in the eye to those who want to close Guantanamo. It's saying that while shutting this prison down may have been the policy in the past, it's not anymore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the reaction there to Trump not just wanting to keep the prison open but quite possibly filling it up with what he's called in the past bad dudes?
WELNA: Well, you know, I've spent the past couple of days here talking with American military commanders in charge of this place. And they tend to view Trump's executive order as just a policy statement for now - that it really doesn't change the status quo on the ground down here. At the same time, they say they're prepared to do whatever is needed to accommodate more prisoners here. And in many ways, this place has been sort of forgotten in recent years. And I sense that there's a certain excitement among the 1,500-plus force guarding these three-and-a-half dozen inmates that the Guantanamo prison camps could be getting a new lease on life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are there any signs that the prison is gearing up for a whole new wave of inmates coming in? I mean, what are you seeing?
WELNA: Well, it's certainly looking like that. I did a guided military tour yesterday of two of the prisons here. And they were showing off a $12 million conversion of one of them into a brand new prisoner health clinic and hospital complete with operating rooms and metal rings attached to the floor for shackling patients. And I would also note that the military censored a couple of photos that I took of those metal rings.
They're also building new cement roads around the prison camps. And a big new barracks is in the works to house more than 800 soldiers. And some of this had been planned earlier. But it all suggests that this is no temporary installation here. It's one where a lot of empty cells could soon have some new occupants, just as Trump suggested the other night.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Thanks, David.
WELNA: You're quite welcome, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.