For more than four years, across five Army and Marine commanders, the detention and interrogation center here has been fraught with challenges and controversies.
Enter Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the first Navy commander, who took charge on March 31, he says, with no mandate for change.
And no special marching orders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who designated the site in January 2002 as the "least worst" place for the Pentagon's first full-blown offshore detention center.
On May 18, Harris sat down for an hourlong interview with four reporters, who were visiting the base to report about the latest round of Military Commissions - U.S. tribunals where, so far, 10 of the 465 or so captives face war-crimes charges.
As the one-star admiral spoke, two enemy combatants held at a portion of the prison called Camp Delta were unconscious, commanders said, after poisoning themselves with overdoses of other captives' prescription drugs they had apparently hoarded in the camps.
Within hours, U.S. soldiers foiled an ambush attempt by captives at a minimum-security barracks for cooperative detainees.
In between, with the suicide attempts not yet made public, the 28-year career naval officer discussed the enemy, the challenge and the controversies surrounding the Pentagon's premier detention center at the Navy base known as "Gitmo."
Here are some excerpts:
Q: When you came down here, were your orders more to change things or keep them the same?
Harris: My orders were to be the commander, to relieve [Army Maj. Gen.] Jay Hood as commander of the Joint Task Force. Military orders don't tell you whether to change things or whether to keep things the same. They simply say, "Go down there and report." And that's what I'm doing. I did not receive any guidance from the secretary of defense. I did not meet with the secretary of defense on this. I met the CNO [chief of naval operations]; he told me I was coming down here. But I received no direction to change things. I was just told to come down here and assume command.
Q: Have you heard from the secretary of defense since?
Harris: I have not spoken to the secretary of defense. Ever.
Q: Any theory on why?
Harris: I think the secretary is a busy man. I'm not sure that the secretary meets with one-star admirals and generals who go through a chain of command. I'm sure he meets with three- and four-stars. I would say he trusts his four-star generals to provide guidance to one-star admirals.
Q: Are you willing to characterize the best piece of intelligence to come out of this place since you got here?
Harris: Yes. I won't get into specifics. I would say that the character of the intelligence that comes out of here helps us specifically understand the processes and procedures that al Qaeda and Taliban use in or on the battlefield. . . . I believe we are getting some genuine stuff out of the detainees here that helps us in the global war on terrorism, us being Americans and our allies in the global war on terror.
Q: Do you see the ultimate goal of this operation here to bring the population down to zero at some point?
Harris: The president has said that he would like to see the facility closed. I think that's what he said. I'm not sure of the exact quote. I believe and I hope that we can in fact close this when the need for it no longer exists. And I say that today we have a need for Guantánamo and facilities like Guantánamo. The folks that are here are enemy combatants, except for the four that are no longer enemy combatants. . . . We have recommended for either outright release or transfer . . . about 140. The State Department is aggressively working that piece with the countries and the remaining ones here are hardened enemy combatants and I think they have to be kept off the battlefield somewhere. It's neither here nor there if Guantánamo is that place, but the fact is that a place has to be found. And right now, Guantánamo meets part of that need. And that's why we're here.