Military staff, detainees at Gitmo prison remain civil on US base in Cuba
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 10, 2016
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — The two men leaned casually against the simple chain-link fence that separated them, talking amicably as unseen eyes watched.
It was a busy Tuesday afternoon inside Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Six, one of three structures that house the 80 remaining law-of-war detainees at the prison facility on this otherwise sleepy U.S. naval base on Cuba’s southeastern coast.
Guards rushed around inside a darkened internal corridor delivering meals to the handful of occupied cellblocks; some stopped to glance through the one-way glass as the two men continued their conversation for more than five minutes.
The man on the far side of the fence was a detainee — a gray-bearded, olive-skinned middle-age man in an oversize white T-shirt and sandals — who has been held for at least the last eight years at this controversial offshore detention center that President Barack Obama has pledged to close.
The other was an American soldier — a noncommissioned officer responsible for the military police soldiers guarding and “providing the safe, humane, transparent and legal” detention of suspected Islamist terrorists, Osama bin Laden lieutenants and Taliban fighters captured years earlier on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“More paper,” said the soldier, a hulking master sergeant whose patches indicate he is a military policeman and served in combat with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “He does a lot of writing. He wants more paper and more pens.”
It was a very simple request — “too easy,” the soldier said — that the guards would quickly fill.
This civilized interaction has become the norm between the staff of mostly Army National Guardsmen or reservists and the majority of the detainees, according to leaders with Joint Task Force Guantanamo, the official name of the unit that oversees detention operations. The leaders were part of a recent meticulously scripted and controlled media tour of the detention facility.
“We get along with them fairly well — actually really well,” said the master sergeant, whose name tape read only “NCO IC.”
“If we don’t give them respect, I think you’d find a tougher time with them, but it is nothing but respect and fair treatment, for the most part, on both sides.”
Inside Guantanamo camps Five, Six and Seven, the days of widespread hunger strikes and regular assaults — verbal, physical or through a vile technique known as “splashing,” in which detainees douse guards with bodily fluids — are gone, said Army Col. David Heath, the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s joint detention group, with about 1,100 troops. Only two detainees are listed as noncompliant, he said. Fewer than five remain on enteral feeding — twice-daily liquid meals often delivered through a nasogastric tube — said Navy Capt. Rich Quattrone, chief medical officer.
Inside Camp Six and the classified-secret Camp 7, which houses 15 “high value detainees” including suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, all of the captives are well-behaved, Heath said. They are classified as highly compliant, meaning for at least 90 days they have stringently followed facility rules.
Noncompliant detainees are housed alone in cells inside the maximum security Camp Five. That camp sits just across a concertina-wired fence from Camp Six, where captives live communally 22 hours a day with access to 300 satellite TV channels, PlayStation games and a library full of books, magazines and DVDs.
Camp Seven’s location is a carefully guarded secret. A Navy captain stationed on the island for more than a year told reporters he was unfamiliar with its locale.
In his two years commanding the camps, Heath said relations between the guards and detainees have drastically improved. Twenty-five detainees were considered noncompliant when he arrived, and assaults on guards occurred regularly.
He credited the increasing compliance on the professionalism of his guard force and “a wave of optimism” among detainees as more are transferred out of Guantanamo.
Since January, 27 detainees have been transferred to other nations. Twenty-six of the remaining detainees have been cleared for release once the U.S. finds agreeable conditions for another country to take them.
“I’m proud to tell you … not a single guard has ever retaliated against a detainee since I’ve been here,” Heath said. “I think that says a lot about American values, about professionalism, about young college-age kids who are able to literally brush that stuff (fluids) off, put a new uniform on and go back to work.”
Heath and other Guantanamo leaders told reporters they support Obama’s plans to shutter the detention facilities.
It is expensive to run -- about $400 million a year -- and its perceived image provides propaganda material to terrorists across the world, the president has said repeatedly since releasing a plan to Congress in February to close the prison.
“We understand and we fully support the president’s objectives to shut down the detention operations here at Guantanamo Bay,” said Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, JTF Guantanamo’s commander. “We are fully ready when given an order to begin planning and then carry out that transfer if the time comes. If not, then we are ready to continue with long-term operations here.”
The president’s plan calls for moving detainees considered too dangerous to release to a maximum-security facility within the United States. It was rejected by Republican lawmakers who criticized its lack of details, such as which facility in the U.S. would house the captives.
Many Republican lawmakers have adopted a “not in my backyard” mantra on moving any Guantanamo detainees to American soil, and they have passed legislation making detainee movement into the United States illegal.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized the president’s continued efforts to close the facility as “a bad idea,” and urged him to “abandon this dangerous plan,” in a statement released May 3.
Heath said the facility, which needs $225 million in repairs and construction to remain operative, should probably be closed. He said there was nothing particularly special about how the military houses the detainees inside the facilities, which were modeled after prisons inside the U.S.
U.S. prisons hold convicted terrorists – at least 440 in more than two dozen prisons, according to Department of Justice statistics – including several notorious jihadists.
“I think we have the equivalent capabilities to most maximum-security prisons in the U.S.,” he said.