Deteriorating facilities draw scrutiny as Gitmo eyed for possible prisoner influx
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Black, blue and brown tarps hang from the ceiling of the metal dwelling, framing a shoulder-width hallway from the front door to the rear and carving out tiny, makeshift rooms — home for the six U.S. Army sergeants sharing the space during their nine-month tour here.
The room is a little cramped, the soldiers said. Sometimes the air conditioning does not work well. The tarps crinkle when someone walks by, which is annoying, especially when they are trying to sleep between shifts at the infamous detention center just down the street.
“You make the best of it, right? You know, it could be worse,” said one of the sergeants, all of whom are military policemen assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay — the 1,700-trooper-strong U.S. military team responsible for running the detention facility that houses 40 remaining detainees captured on battlefields in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
For nearly 17 years, the American troops stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have spent their rotations here living in Camp America — this block of temporary housing built quickly as the U.S. worked on the encampment that would house the first arriving enemy combatants. The majority of the remaining 40 detainees — down from a high of more than 600 — are housed in facilities that have been upgraded or rebuilt three times on this 45-acre, U.S.-run facility on the coast of southeastern Cuba. Yet the MPs still live in the original temporary dwellings, which never were intended to last more than five years.
President Barack Obama pledged to close the controversial facility in 2008, calling out mistreatment of detainees held without charges, turning them into “forever prisoners.” For years, projects to update facilities around the detention center — including new servicemember housing — were put off as he attempted to fulfill his campaign promise.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s policy statement to work toward closing the facility.
So now, the Guantanamo detention facility is slated to remain open indefinitely and the Trump administration is weighing sending more enemy combatants here, something that has not happened in more than a decade.
State Department spokesman Robert Palladino on Monday said that the detention center could be used to house nearly 1,000 suspected Islamic State fighters currently in the custody of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump ordered that withdrawal in December, and unnamed military sources told the Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon is preparing to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria by the end of April. Other military officials pushed back, saying the eventual drawdown will be based on battlefield conditions, not the calendar.
Troops safety, funding
Since it became clear that the detention center would remain open, top officials at Guantanamo Bay have sought hundreds of millions of dollars for construction projects they say are needed to improve troops’ quality of life and their safety.
“I’m trying to take care of my troopers, and I’m going to need some money to do that,” Navy Rear Adm. John Ring, the top commander of Guantanamo’s detention facilities, said in an interview late last year. “When you go from [preparing to close] to opening for 25 years, there’s a little bit of investment that’s required so that my troopers have a safe place to sleep and a comfortable place to work. We owe it to the troopers who come down here, who volunteer to put on the cloth of their country in a time of war.”
Congress in recent years has provided some funding for the detention facility, budget documents show. It funded a new, $12.4 million seaside dining facility near Camp America for troops working in the prison where detainees’ food is now cooked. Lawmakers provided $8 million to build updated medical facilities for detainees. They also approved a $14 million expansion of Guantanamo’s war court facilities known as Camp Justice.
Last year, Congress approved a $115 million project to build permanent barracks that would house about half of the enlisted force assigned to the detention center. That new structure, whose contract has yet to be awarded to a builder, will provide 848 troops with dormitory-style living.
Ring said that a second, new barracks also would be needed, but he and other top officials have yet to determine how large it would need to be or what it would cost.
The updated quarters would be a welcome upgrade to the soldiers currently serving inside the detention facility, said the sergeant, who spoke to Stars and Stripes during a recent media tour of the base.
“Walls would be way better than tarps,” the soldier said. Stars and Stripes agreed not to name servicemembers working inside the encampment to honor the joint task force’s security rules. “It’s those little things. I’m sure it would be quieter. Still, for me, personally, this is not so bad after doing a year in Afghanistan in a place half this size with four people stuck in it.”
The first new housing structure, which officials hope to complete by 2021, represents only a portion of the construction that top officials hope to have funded now that they have been tasked with an enduring mission for at least the next 25 years.
Across the base, which is also home to the oldest U.S. naval station outside American territory, the sound of heavy construction equipment hums in at least a half-dozen locations. Congress in recent years has funded $375 million in current or future development at Guantanamo Bay, but that money is pegged primarily to improvements for the Navy base. That includes a new K-12 school, new housing and dining facilities, upgraded medical facilities, $85 million for a new solid-waste-management facility and $9 million for a working-dog treatment facility.
Camp 8 option
With the possibility of more detainees, Ring said, Congress needs to consider the safety of the men and women serving at the detention facility — especially inside the ultrasecretive Camp 7, the maximum-security facility that holds the 15 men considered the “highest value” detainees. Those men, once held by the CIA, include five accused of plotting or supporting the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks on the U.S.
Camp 7 — which the military has never opened to media or the public — is falling apart and hemorrhaging money, according to Ring, who considers replacing it with a new facility dubbed Camp 8 as his No. 1 funding priority.
Built in 2006 on a leach field for wastewater without a proper environmental study, Camp 7 was not intended to stand for a dozen years, Ring said. Today, the foundation is cracked and jail cells are sinking. The structure is settling so quickly that more than once every week, workers must shave concrete from the cells to ensure their doors will open and close properly, the admiral said.
“Camp 7 tells its own story — if you can see it,” he said. “I mean, it’s getting pretty serious.”
Ring proposed that Congress fund Camp 8, a $69 million project he said could be run much more cheaply than the current $8 million yearly estimate to man Camp 7, and it would be much less expensive to maintain. He estimated yearly costs to maintain Camp 7 range between $5 million and $10 million.
Congress for several years has denied top Guantanamo officials the funding for a new facility. With Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives, it appears unlikely that will change this year.
Staffers for the House Armed Services Committee Democrats said there is no appetite to pour more money into the detention center, which they fundamentally oppose.
“The military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is a terrible legacy of an infamously misguided policy,” HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in an email. “I have fought for its closure throughout my time on the Armed Services Committee, and I will continue to work toward that goal.”
Top Republicans who recently have called for Trump to send ISIS prisoners to Guantanamo Bay declined to confirm whether they would support a new facility.
Pentagon officials, who recommended last year that Congress fund Camp 8, would not discuss which Guantanamo Bay projects it would include in its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, which is due to Congress in the coming weeks. However, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, chief of U.S. Southern Command, told senators on Capitol Hill on Thursday that the budget request would include some construction funding for Guantanamo Bay. He did not specify which projects would be included.
Ring said there really is no “plan B” if he is denied the money for the new camp.
“There aren’t any good options,” he said. “So, much like with the trooper housing, we continue to put Band-Aids on it. We continue to rebuild what we can; we continue to put the guards at risk. Truly, right now, the biggest thing I can do for my troopers is to get Camp 8 funded.”
The new encampment would be safer for the American soldiers inside, adding a legal annex and a health clinic, drastically reducing the travel required for the detainees held inside Camp 7, Ring said.
“So, what that gives me is a very efficient operation, with almost no external moves” of detainees, he said. “Most of the shenanigans and the risk to the troopers comes with external moves.”
‘Load it up’
Ring continues to prepare the detention center for new detainees, something that has not occurred in more than a decade.
Despite Trump’s pledge to “load it up with some bad dudes,” little has changed in the day-to-day running of the detention center, Ring and other Guantanamo officials said.
The White House has not ordered any new detainees sent to Guantanamo Bay, and Pentagon officials do not expect such an order in the immediate future, said Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department.
That could change as discussions continue about options for the captive ISIS militants held in Syria, Pentagon officials acknowledged Friday.
Senate Republicans are pushing the Trump administration to begin sending ISIS prisoners to Guantanamo Bay. In a Jan. 23 letter to Trump, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., urged the president to transfer some of the estimated 700-plus ISIS fighters held by U.S.-backed fighters in eastern Syria to Guantanamo Bay.
“Given the rapidly shifting dynamics in Syria, it is possible that these terrorists may escape or be released from [Syrian Democratic Forces] custody in the coming weeks and months,” the senators wrote. “It is imperative that these Islamic State fighters not be released.”
Another top Senate Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed support for Trump’s pledge to send new prisoners to the facility in Cuba.
“I firmly believe that one of our best, most effective counterterrorism tools is Guantanamo Bay and that it should be continued to be used as such,” Inhofe said via email. “I support President Trump’s commitment to continuing to use the facility for new detainees when appropriate.”
Right now, the detention facility could take 40 new prisoners without any changes, new funding or additional guards, said Army Col. Steve Yamashita, the top military police officer at Guantanamo.
“We are prepared,” he said. “We have plans in place to receive new detainees and to properly house them and segregate them from other populations.”
Any new detainees — ISIS fighters or others — would not be housed with the current population. Ring said that is for the protection of his guards and not necessarily for the benefit of the detainees.
“We’re never going to mix them,” the admiral said. “You don’t want the old guys giving the new guys the playbook. It’s been a long 16 years. We’ve learned a lot, they’ve learned a lot. So, we would want to start fresh.”
With the current infrastructure in place, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility could hold about 200 new detainees, but that would require an influx of about two companies of military police officers, about 200 to 300 soldiers.
That, of course, would require more money for operations and housing. And, in the long run, likely would require more investment in infrastructure, Ring said.
“We have no indication — we have not received an order, and I have no intelligence that I’m going to get an order,” the admiral said. “… The upside is we’re pretty good at what we do here, and we would handle it safely, humanely and legally, as we’re ordered.”