GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba
The U.S. military's mission at Guantánamo is shifting to permanent detention for al-Qaida and other war-on-terror detainees, commanders told reporters this week in a rare public pitch for Congress to fund a new $69 million, wheelchair-accessible prison — complete with a hospice-care cellblock — for the five accused 9/11 plotters and 10 other captives who were in some instances tortured in secret overseas CIA prisons.
"Picture in your mind elderly detainees, brothers taking care of one another. That is the humane way ahead," said prison spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos.
Guantánamo detention center leaders said Tuesday that they are shifting their mission because President Donald Trump's January executive order canceled President Barack Obama's mandate to close the prison. During the Obama administration, the prison camp made few building improvements, "putting a Band-Aid" on structural problems, said prison operations commander Rear Adm. John Ring.
Ring, Army Col. Steve Gabavics, chief of the guard force; and the prison's top engineer, described the vision for the new "high-value detainee” prison:
Two wings would have wheelchair-accessible cells and communal space, which they currently do not. A third wing would be for hospice care, a first for overall prison operations begun Jan. 11, 2002. And the new prison would have attorney-client meeting rooms instead of a remote site where their special guards, Task Force Platinum, bring them in restraints inside a windowless van. It would be called Camp 8.
Military planners have been asking for $69 million to build the new prison since February 2014, and the commanders acknowledged that with design still under way a new Camp 8 would likely cost more. The Obama administration refused to back the plan and Congress has so far refused to fund it, despite a formal request from the Trump White House.
The House did not include it in its version of the defense policy bill for fiscal 2019, and the Senate Armed Services Committee's version, released Wednesday, shows it did not. Absent special legislation, the last chance to fund it would be when the full Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act later this year.
All but one of the 15 men now held in Guantánamo's clandestine, hillside high-value prison, called Camp 7, are in their 40s and 50s. The eldest is alleged al-Qaida commander Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, believed to be 57, who relies on a wheelchair and a walker after a series of emergency spine surgeries for a degenerative disc condition. The youngest is Majid Khan, 38, who has pleaded guilty to war crimes, is segregated and awaiting sentencing.
Many of Camp 7's captives, according to their lawyers, suffer a series of disabilities from their years in the CIA black sites where agents waterboarded some, rectally abused others and subjected them to cruel interrogation techniques such as hanging them by their wrists in shackles, confining them to cramped coffin-style boxes and keeping them naked in icy cold or overheated cells.
The current Camp 7 has structural problems, including cracks in the wall and a shifting foundation, but is not currently a health or safety hazard to either the captives or their guards, Ring and Gabavics told reporters in a wide-ranging, nearly 90-minute interview.
Criminal defense attorney Walter Ruiz visited the prison in preparation for the 9/11 death-penalty trial, and said in December it struck him as “just like this kind of beaten-down, broken-down, county-jail-looking kind of thing.” Ruiz, a commander in the Naval Reserves 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.”
Reporters are forbidden to see Camp 7, and visitors are forbidden to describe it in any detail, although one commander said years ago that it was stabilized to prevent it from sliding down a hill. It has 28 cells, according to a diagram obtained by McClatchy.
The military acknowledges it was given Camp 7 already built in late 2006, but its origins are a government secret. On Sept. 11, 2014, a federal judge rejected a Freedom of Information lawsuit by McClatchy seeking disclosure of what U.S. contractor built it, for how much and when, saying the information was properly classified by the Defense Department.
Of the 15 men held inside, seven are held as "forever prisoners," meaning they never have been charged with war crimes and are being held indefinitely. Two are in non-capital proceedings and six await death-penalty trials as alleged architects of al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack and the Oct 12, 2000, USS Cole bombing. But even if they are sentenced to death in trials — that still have no jury selection date — their appeals are expected to last years.
Unlike Camp 7, Ring said, the location of a new Camp 8 might not be a secret, in part because they are looking for a site near two prison buildings where Guantánamo's other 25 captives are kept, Camp 5 and 6 prison.
The length and depth of the discussion was rare for a detention center media visit, the first since Ring took over as the 18th overall commander of prison operations April 17.
Ring said there are drainage problems and a settling foundation, which has caused "minor cracks in the walls here and there," meaning workers had to "shave a couple doors so they could open and close." None of it is critical, he said.
"As I walk into the facility, as the new guy looking around, it's not, 'Oh my God, what's going on here?' " he said. "The population's getting older. So we need to start looking at the future."
The new Camp 8 would be designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane in the Caribbean. It has never been disclosed what wind velocity would rip the roofs off Camp 7.
In October 2016, as Hurricane Matthew approached Guantánamo the commander evacuated families of Navy base residents to the mainland and Camp 7 prisoners to a secret bunker of sorts, according to attorneys who described the circumstances for McClatchy. It was the first time some former CIA captives had seen or heard fellow al-Qaida members since before 9/11.
Commanders also told reporters:
▪Staff assigned to the detention center of 40 captives, now held in three prison buildings, had risen to 1,800 and would likely rise again to 2,200. Leaders are tweaking staffing with two additional military police companies.
▪ The admiral’s engineer was preparing a proposal to build a 960-soldier barracks in the Detention Zone near a new $12 million, 220-troop, hurricane-proof dining facility that opens next month. Congress has already funded a $115 million, 848-soldier barracks for prison troops to be built in the main portion of the base opposite the McDonald’s. If completed on time, a rarity in this remote location where Pentagon contractors fly in foreign construction workers, the prison's first permanent barracks would be complete in late 2021.
▪ Ring and his staff were looking at creating full-time civilian Defense Department jobs in his headquarters currently occupied by a revolving series of reservists, including the staff attorney, deputy joint task force commander and spokesman positions, to stabilize operations.