Guantánamo gets troop surge, no special envoys

Two weeks after President Barack Obama pledged to appoint two special czars to work on closing the prison camps at Guantánamo, the jobs have yet to be filled — and the only jobs announced are in a plan to send more troops to the detention center.

Saturday, 124 fresh guards from a Military Police company in Texas land at the remote base. It’s the vanguard of a plan to grow to 2,000 the staff at the prison camps, where 166 captives are being held.

Friday, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, toured the prison with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and issued a joint statement supporting closure of the controversial prison camps “with a safe and orderly transition of the detainees to other locations.”

But aside from the day trip to southeast Cuba, there has been no word from the White House on the next steps after Obama’s May 23 vow at National Defense University to find a way to close the Guantánamo prison.

No one has been chosen to fill the two senior envoy positions at the State Department and Pentagon “whose sole responsibility,” Obama said, “will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries.” And, surprisingly in leak-prone Washington, no names have been floated for the jobs that the White House told reporters would by supervised by Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco.

“People are literally scratching their heads,” said a government official who discussed the vacuum on condition he not be named because he was not authorized to speak on the topic.

Obama administration officials won’t explain the delay.

The Pentagon point person would require vetting, and a security clearance to see classified information, unless he or she is already working on detainee issues. The State Department had a special envoy, Ambassador Daniel Fried, but shut his office and reassigned him to handle sanctions issues earlier this year.

“The public hasn’t heard much about this matter since the president’s speech,” former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith wrote in the national security LawFare blog.


Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard Law School, added that there was “no public evidence” that the White House even put up a fight this week when the House of Representatives wrote continuing transfer restrictions into a Defense Spending bill.

Meantime, the administration has been mired in daily disclosures that the government was sweeping up communications records of millions of Americans — a distraction that may have taken the focus off the 166 foreign captives, 86 of whom were cleared for release or transfer from Guantánamo in 2010.

And “the current situation” at Guantánamo, as Obama said in his speech, “where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” continues to grow.

Saturday, the prison said it counted 104 of the 166 detainees at Guantánamo as hunger strikers, the first increase since before the president’s speech. About a third of the captives, or 41, were getting force feedings Saturday — nine more men than when the president spoke.

Since then, the military at Guantánamo has acknowledged that its daily hunger strike tally does not include if any of the 15 former CIA captives, such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, are on hunger strike.

They are the “high-value detainees” kept in a secret prison since they got to Guantánamo in 2006. They’re guarded by a special unit, Task Force Platinum, and segregated both physically and statistically because their hunger-strike status is “classified,” said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison spokesman.


As for the rest, Guantánamo’s longest-held prisoners, most were approaching their ninth week under lockdown.

All but 15 or so of the men are confined inside a cell in a largely solitary existence that requires guards to shackle each man at the wrists and ankles to move him anywhere — to showers, to recreation yards, to force feedings.

Lockdown is more labor intensive so the U.S. Southern Command in South Florida, which has oversight of the prison, has asked for reinforcements.

In October, after a period of downsizing, most captives were living communally — showering, eating and doing recreation on their own inside confined areas — and the prison camps reported the detention staff figure at “about 1,700.”

It broke down to about 1,400 troops and 300 civilians, including contractors and other government workers.

By this week, with 37 extra Navy medical workers on base to help out in the hunger strike and 20 new public affairs troops on the ground to take over from a smaller team of 15, the full detention center staff topped 1,830 — guards, cooks, lawyers, military intelligence and librarians as well as Navy nurses and Army photographers.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

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