Former general makes a case for sparing Guantanamo
By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Tribune, Fla. | Published: February 14, 2016
TAMPA — Sitting in the office of his Bayshore Boulevard home, Jay Hood holds a picture of five bearded men — all Taliban leaders taken off the battlefields of Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo Bay until they were swapped for an Army sergeant who walked away from his post.
“These are all dangerous men,” said Hood, 62, a retired Army major general who has intimate knowledge of the Taliban leaders and the U.S. military prison in Cuba where they were held. “I think they pose a real threat to the long-term success of the NATO and U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.”
Between 2004 and 2006, Hood ran the prison at the U.S. Navy base on the southeastern corner of Cuba and was the senior American military leader to have contact with the five Taliban. All are now in Qatar as part of the U.S. deal two years ago to free Bowe Bergdahl.
Every day, Hood spent hours with the men and women of the Joint Task Force, monitoring their performance and observing the enemy combatants in their detention centers, or via remote monitoring, and, on occasion, in face- to-face meetings.
With President Barack Obama facing a Feb. 23 deadline to tell Congress how he plans to close the Guantanamo prison, Hood hopes the answer will be driven by one primary consideration: As long as the U.S. and its allies are battling jihadis, it needs a place to hold them and gather intelligence.
In a December news conference, Obama said he was moving to shut Guantanamo, in part, because it “has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam.”
Closing it, the president said, is a part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, supported by military, diplomatic and intelligence interests, but the White House isn’t ready to release details yet.
In an email to the Tribune last week, a senior White House official said only that the administration is seeking to close Guantanamo “in a responsible manner that protects our national security.” The Pentagon said it is satisfied with the plans in place to hold and interrogate those taken off the battlefield.
But Hood remains unconvinced.
Speaking at length for the first time since leaving Guantanamo 10 years ago next month, Hood told the Tribune the administration appears to prefer killing to capturing, reducing opportunities to gather intelligence and creating more enemies.
This approach seems to ignore accepted military doctrine, Hood said, pointing to the Army Field Manual — the guide for handling battlefield detainees — and its emphasis on the importance of gathering intelligence while detainees are still in shock from being captured. Hood is also concerned that the administration is rapidly returning prisoners to battle against the U.S. and its allies.
“I know of no specific policies out there that describe what you are going to do if you capture any of those folks,” Hood said. “When you take an enemy force off the battlefield, you have to have some place to hold him that is safe and secure so we can treat them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, which allow us to interrogate them and gain information of intelligence value from them. I think we ought to have some mechanism in place to do that.”
So do others at the center of the debate.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, is seeking answers from the White House, as well.
“I’m not satisfied with the current plans,” Thornberry told the Tribune. “The administration has leaned much more toward killing people on the battlefield to avoid answering these messy questions about interrogation and detention.”
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Hood once served at U.S. Central Command on a planning team observing Osama bin Laden and would later serve as chief of staff for then-Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus.
Hood wasan artillery officer and assistant division commander of the 24th Infantry Division when he was tabbed to take over Guantanamo. The prison was opened by then-President George W. Bush to take in those captured in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.
It was a challenging time for the U.S. By the time Hood was asked to take over Guantanamo, there were growing concerns over prisoner treatment. At the same time, the world was about to learn that the CIA had been using techniques like waterboarding in secret prisons elsewhere around the world.
Another looming issue would add to the difficulty of the job: As he was undergoing briefings, with just a week to prepare, he was told about “some ugly pictures” that had been taken inside a prison in Iraq.
“The pictures were not yet public, but had the potential to be very controversial,” Hood said. “Then, about a month or two after I took command, those ugly pictures became public.”
They were the now-ubiquitous images showing mistreatment of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. The ensuing firestorm burned hot 7,000 miles to the west in Cuba.
“Naturally, the reaction by people around the world is that if the Americans were doing that there, imagine what they are doing at their own totally controlled camp at Guantanamo Bay. They are probably torturing all those people,” Hood said. “But nothing could be further from the truth.”
Confident that the more than 500 prisoners in his care at the time were being treated humanely, interrogated only under techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual, Hood encouraged media visits, opening the camp up to journalists from around the world.
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The move resulted in extensive news coverage ranging from negative to supportive, and Hood still keeps a record of those stories in his office. But during his tenure at Guantanamo, he ran into a controversy of his own over the forced feeding of some inmates who went on a hunger strike.
As he did at the time, Hood continues to defend his actions, saying it is better to make prisoners uncomfortable than let them die.
“I quietly grabbed procedures used in U.S. federal facilities and followed them nearly to the T,” Hood said. “Except we probably put a lot more effort in giving the individual detainee an option.”
Hood added that no prisoner committed suicide on his watch.
Still, news coverage of the forced feeding added pressure for the U.S. to close the prison and ultimately cost Hood an assignment as top U.S. military officer in Pakistan. Leaders there objected to his selection.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Hood said. “It’s actually precisely what most of the detainees wanted to happen.”
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Running Guantanamo, with detainees ranging from the most dangerous in the world to people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, was a seven-day-a-week job, Hood said.
He divided his time between administrative work, interacting with troops who were guarding the prisoners, going over intelligence assessments, observing prisoners and sometimes interrogations, and making sure those in his custody were safe and humanely treated.
While most of his troops hid their military ranks and names, following guidelines, Hood let the prisoners know his status — initially a brigadier general until he was promoted at Guantanamo to a two-star general.
His rank limited his interaction with prisoners because talking to a high-ranking American officer gave them status of their own.
A main goal at Guantanamo was to gain intelligence about al-Qaida and the Taliban. Interrogations helped, Hood said.
“We learned a significant amount about how al-Qaida recruited, trained and communicated their actions. We also learned a fairly significant amount about the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said.
Hood was reluctant to provide more details, some of them still classified, but did describe one situation as an example of Guantanamo’s successes.
One prisoner claimed to be a driver, but after some time, interrogators learned his true identity and the significance of his role — Abdul Haq Wasiq, deputy minister of intelligence for the Taliban. Wasiq and his people had managed to gather a great deal of human intelligence and had ties to Taliban leadership.
Wasiq also was one of the five Taliban leaders freed in the swap for Bergdahl, whose court martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy recently was delayed.
Years before that trade was considered, there were rumors the men would be released as part of a deal to induce the Taliban to take part in peace negotiations. Shortly after he retired from his 36-year military career, Hood argued in a 2012 opinion column in the Tribune that releasing the men was a mistake.
He holds the same opinion today, saying that releasing them and others like him returns an enemy still willing to kill Americans to the battlefield.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, one of those men and the former Taliban army chief of staff, could easily raise 10,000 men in Afghanistan to fight against the U.S. and its allies, Hood said. That’s especially dangerous now as Afghan security forces lose ground to the Taliban.
He also points to the case of Abdullah Salim Ali al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti detainee released from Guantanamo in 2005 only to blow himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq three years later.
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During his time at Guantanamo, Hood argued against releasing Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, who became a top al-Qaida leader in Yemen before he was killed in a drone attack last year. He also cites the case of Ibrahim al-Qosi, detained at Guantanamo and, after release, another leader of al-Qaida in Yemen.
“The threat is actually very extensive from recidivists.”
So, too, is the threat of losing intelligence by not interrogating prisoners, Hood said. Of particular concern is the fate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the so-called Islamic State jihadi group.
Hood considers Islamic State more dangerous than al-Qaida ever was, except for the time just before and after 9/11. Hood wonders what plans are in place to capture al-Baghdadi, noting statements by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, that the organization will continue to “direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had him and some military interrogation guys talked to him and figured out his long-range strategic aims? There seems to be some value in that.”
Detention of enemies was common during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when thousands were held until they were turned over to host-nation security forces as U.S. troops withdrew.
The Pentagon has a policy in place “to detain, interrogate, and, where appropriate, seek the prosecution of individuals captured on the battlefield,” said Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman.
Ross said the “disposition for any detainee is ultimately determined by what best supports the national security of the United States and of our allies and partners, consistent with domestic and international law.”
This includes al-Baghdadi, Ross said. The Pentagon is satisfied that these policies are sufficient for gathering intelligence while treating detainees humanely.
Hood takes issue with a number of speakers in the national debate over detainees.
Donald Trump has said he would support the use of waterboarding, pouring water over a cloth covering breathing passages to create the sense of drowning, even though it is prohibited the Army Field Manual.
Said Hood, “I think Americans have got to stick to our values and our values system first and foremost.”
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Fewer than 100 prisoners remain at Guantanamo. In his December news conference, Obama argued that the prison not only hurts the U.S. image in the Islamic world, but it costs too much for so few inmates.
“I think we can make a very strong argument that it doesn’t make sense for us to be spending an extra $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, $500 million, a billion dollars, to have a secure setting for 50, 60, 70 people,” Obama said.
Hood disagrees with Obama’s contention that Guantanamo is a major jihadi recruiting tool.
“One of the arguments about closing Guantanamo is that it is such a recruiting tool for the enemy. There is probably some validity to that, but it’s not even close compared to the administration’s policy of using drones to target and kill people they believe need to die.”
Hood also questions Obama’s estimate for the cost of running Guantanamo, wondering whether it also includes the military commissions trying prisoners such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, charged as the mastermind of 9/11, who still is detained,
“I can tell you I never saw that sort of budget as commander of the Joint Task Force for operations,” Hood said. “I’ve never seen anyone provide a breakdown of those cost estimates. How much are operating costs and how much is sunk costs associated with the forces conducting the mission? Does the $400 million cost estimate include the funding for the commissions? The facilities already constructed? The training and transportation of the medical units, security forces, the intel group? No doubt we could do this cheaper in the U.S., but I think the cost is grossly exaggerated.”
Hood said his concerns about releasing detainees, the loss of intelligence and the cost of running the prison are all reasons the administration needs to spell out its plan in its report to Congress.
Thornberry, who awaits the Feb. 23 deadline, said he agrees. But Thornberry said his only course of action if he is unsatisfied is to move toward withdrawing funding for the transfer of prisoners.
On Feb. 3, Thornberry sent a letter to Obama reminding him of the deadline and the need to lay out specifics of how and where current and future prisoners will be held and the costs, security measures and plans for future detentions. It’s a prickly issue, fraught with problems — including concerns from U.S. communities that may not want to house the detainees.
As of Thursday, the White House had yet to respond, Thornberry said.
Even if the White House answers all the questions, he said, it is unlikely Obama will achieve the goal he set out in his first campaign for president: to shutter Guantanamo.
The administration, meanwhile, says it is doing what it can to reduce the detainee population and close the prison “in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” a senior White House official said.
The White House will work with Congress to remove restrictions that hinder closure of the prison, the White House said, adding, “This has always been the President’s goal and remains a high priority.”
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