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Pentagon wants to replace Guantanamo’s Top Secret prison at $4.6 million per prisoner

War-on-terror captives from two different cellblocks, separated by a fence, conduct communal evening prayers at the Camp 6 prison building for cooperative captives at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

WALTER MICHOT/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

By CAROL ROSENBERG | The Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 13, 2018

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The Pentagon wants $69 million to replace the Top Secret prison where the accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and 14 other former CIA captives are kept.

The funding request, included in a massive 2019 Department of Defense budget package released Monday, warns that the current prison, Camp 7, is at risk of mechanical, electrical and secure-communications failure, which would be risky to the U.S. Army guards who work there.

Under the proposal, the “maximum-security detention facility” should last for 40 years and include a confidential, “legal visitation area.”

The construction proposal does not indicate how many cells the new prison would hold but stated, without explanation, that the facility “will be available for use by other components.”

With its current 15-captive population, building costs work out to $4.6 million per prisoner. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made two Guantanamo-related pledges: To “load it up with bad dudes,” and to reduce operational costs to “peanuts.” So far, neither has happened.

The request revives a construction project championed by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly when he was the Marine general in charge of the U.S. Southern Command — and at its 2014 price tag. Then, the Pentagon repeatedly refused to seek the funds because it was Obama administration policy to empty the offshore detention center by moving some captives to U.S. lockups. Trump reversed that policy last month.

Reflecting how long it takes to get construction done at this remote U.S. Navy base, the proposed completion date is in July 2022, two years after groundbreaking — if funding is approved in time to complete the design in January and award a contract in May 2019.

The current Camp 7 is a bit of a mystery. Reporters can’t see it, the public can’t know how much the Bush administration spent to build it and lawyers who have inspected it are only allowed to describe it superficially because the site is classified as Top Secret.

In December, criminal defense attorney Walter Ruiz said it struck him as “just like this kind of beaten down, broken down, county-jail-looking kind of thing.” Ruiz, a Navy Reserve commander who as a civilian has defended death-penalty cases in Florida, added: “In fact, some of the Florida county jails are a lot nicer, smelled better.”

The specifications say the building would measure 25,000 square feet, making it a sort of designer prison in comparison to the 427,450-square-foot SuperMax federal prison in Florence, Colo., of 411 maximum-security convicts. The SuperMax holds terrorists, including the “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, first World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.

A main difference between the two populations is SuperMax convicts were tried in federal courts. Camp 7’s captives got there from three and four years in the CIA’s secret Black Sites, overseas prisons where agents sometimes kept captives naked, or in diapers, waterboarded some, rectally abused others, and used cramped confinement boxes and hot and cold temperatures to break the men in their pursuit of al-Qaida secrets.

A three-page Army document on the proposed project says the current Camp 7 is “deteriorating rapidly” with portions predicted to become “unusable in the near term,” but doesn’t say when. It casts the new facility as a necessity for the soldiers who work there.

In October 2015, a staff sergeant with a National Guard unit assigned to the high-value prison testified at the war court that a minimum of 28 guards work there each shift — a small, elite subset of the current, 1,700-strong military and civilian staff that runs the detention center under what is called Joint Task Force Guantanamo, or JTF GTMO.

“Electrical, mechanical, and secure communications systems within the current facilities are stressed and at risk of failure,” the Army justification for a new building says. “The inefficiencies experienced in proper separation, seclusion, and control of occupants put the JTF GTMO staff at risk.”

Occupants include six men accused of war crimes in capital cases: five alleged conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed 2,976 people and the alleged mastermind of al-Qaida’s USS Cole warship bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

Others held there include an Iraqi man on trial and facing a possible life sentence for commanding insurgents in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion in response to 9/11, a Pakistani man who has pleaded guilty to war crimes and awaits sentencing, and seven others who are currently not charged with war crimes.

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