MIAMI — Ten years ago Wednesday, U.S. troops marched 20 men in chains off a military cargo plane at Guantanamo Bay to launch America’s war-on-terror experiment in offshore detention and justice. Now, the prison camps enter their second decade with death penalty tribunals on the horizon and President Barack Obama still struggling to find a formula for closure.
Here are some developments Guantanamo watchers can expect to see:
PRESSURE TO GROW IT
Congress has through a variety of legislation tried to grow the enterprise that has hundreds of empty cells in the crude complex that sprawls along the U.S. Navy base’s waterfront. But the Obama administration’s goal is to shrink then close it.
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“It’s the president’s stated objective to never send anyone to Guantanamo again,” Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said on Tuesday. As of this week, the military had 1,850 U.S. troops and Defense Department contractors on staff of the prison holding 171 captives.
PRISON CAMP UNREST
Tensions are high over a toughening of rules ahead of 10 years in U.S. military detention. Captives complain that the camps instituted a new 25-day punitive segregation regime for rule breakers in a cramped cell at the once-secret Camp 5 Echo; that guards are seizing captives’ spare blankets and clothing after years of a more liberal cell “comfort item” policy; and that guards are now shackling a captive by all four limbs, not just at his ankles, at medical appointments.
On Tuesday, captives told their guards they’d be refusing meals, staging sit-ins and hanging protest signs for three days surrounding the anniversary, according to accounts from the military and defense lawyers.
No crackdown is intended in the penitentiary-style lockup where 140 captives are allowed to pray, eat and congregate in groups of 20 or so.
“Detainees may participate in these non-violent forms of protest and have the opportunity to reasonably express themselves without losing those privileges,” said Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese. The prison spokeswoman had no comment on what was happening in the secret prison camp for former CIA captives or the more severe Camp 5 for convicts and rule breakers.
By Obama administration reckoning, U.S. taxpayers spend $800,000 a year to keep a single captive at Guantanamo Bay, something the people who spend the money won’t explain. The Miami Herald filed an expedited Freedom of Information Act request with the prison and U.S. Southern Command in September, arguing for a swift reply because of Defense Department budget cuts.
Southcom refused and put it at the bottom of the list. Now, the Southcom staff attorney is deciding which documents might be released, says Southcom’s Army Col. Scott Malcom. Next, the Pentagon’s Freedom of Information office will get a chance to scrub the documents the public can see that detail prison camp spending.
TALK OF TALIBAN RELEASES
The White House wants to wind down the war in Afghanistan. And it’s the heart of the conflict that Congress OK’d in the Sept. 18, 2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force, from which the Pentagon designed its indefinite detention regime.
But, “If there are peace talks and if the war is considered over, what will the courts say about continued detention?” says Andrea Prasow, a former Guantanamo defender and now senior counterterror counsel for Human Rights Watch.
Ten Guantanamo captives are Afghan, and some of the 171 prisoners probably never even set foot on Afghan soil after 9/11. But the basis for captivity in Cuba stems from the conflict in Afghanistan.
“Will a court say the conflict has ended?” Prasow asks. “After Osama bin Laden is killed, after peace talks with the Taliban, it may no longer justify indefinite detention.”
TEEN TERRORIST GOES HOME
The Canadian who threw a grenade at age 15 that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002 could go to a prison in Canada any day now.
Under an October 2010 plea agreement, Omar Khadr pleaded guilty and got at most eight more years confinement, in consideration of his age.
Now, says his Toronto attorney, John Norris, the latest defense bill makes it easier for the Obama administration to transfer the 25-year-old from Guantanamo. The Toronto-born Khadr’s lawyers expect he’ll suddenly turn up in a federal penitentiary in Ontario or Quebec, where the country keeps convicted terrorists. Then in 2013, after a third of his sentence, Khadr can apply for parole under Canada’s legal code for juvenile offenders.
Lawyers worry for the security of a young man who’s notorious as scion of a family of radical Muslims that kept company with bin Laden. “Some fool could get it into his head to target him,” Norris says.
NEW CONSTITUTIONAL CLASH
Lawyers for former CIA captives argue that the prison camps are meddling in their confidential correspondence with their clients. The military says it’s looking for material the guards might consider disruptive in the camps, for example as favorable to al-Qaida or otherwise incendiary.
The Chief Defense Counsel, Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, has just issued a legal opinion that his lawyers can’t ethically let the military review their communications. Guantanamo defense lawyers are turning to the civilian court, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to order the prison to stop reading what Navy Cmdr Suzanne Lachelier, a veteran defender, calls “privileged communications with our clients.”
With the Iraq war over, the show business theater is shrinking, too. So expect more entertainers to join the pilgrimages by everyone from musicians to comedians to Shakespearean actors to Lady Gaga lookalikes to the Navy outpost that gets free first-run movies every night.
Entertainers get easy commutes, the run of the base’s bars and guest quarters with 24-hour cable TV. Next up: The Atlanta based pop-rock quintet Cartel plays a Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon Jan. 29.
Also, Guantanamo continues to provide fodder for the imagination with this year’s release of the novel “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.” It’s Alex Gilvarry’s tale of a Filipino design school graduate who is swept off to the prison camps and trial as a “Fashion terrorist.”
NCIS should close the books on what killed Awal Gul, 48, whom the prison camps say collapsed in a prison shower in February after working out on an exercise machine, and Haji Nassim, 37, whom guards reportedly discovered in May hanging by a bedsheet in a prison recreation yard.
Investigations of the deaths of both Afghan “indefinite detainees” are still considered open, says Ed Buice at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Quantico, Va.
“All death cases go through the Death Review Board, then Death Review Panel process. They get very careful scrutiny to make sure that every conceivable lead has been found and followed, evidence gathered and analyzed, every step documented, etc.”
WAR COURT GOES CAPITAL
Prosecutors expect to bring the alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants before the war court on death penalty charges. And the first man to face a capital trial is the alleged USS Cole bomber, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. CIA agents waterboarded both men.
The two cases, says attorney Matt Waxman, who ran detainee affairs in the Bush years, “combine ‘big fish’ defendants, interrogation controversy and the prospects of death penalties. Those factors combine to raise the profile of these cases, if not their stakes.”
The public should also expect to learn in the 11th year whether the Obama administration ramps up its reformed commissions or continues to rely on federal civilian prosecutions for terror cases.
Expect the Republicans to portray Obama as soft on terror for still wanting to close the camps that have stirred anger in the Muslim world and unhappiness among U.S. allies.
And expect the president to reply that it was on his watch that U.S. forces killed bin Laden, for whom America built a prison compound at Guantanamo.
(A Miami Herald correspondent since 1990, Carol Rosenberg has covered the detention center at Guantanamo since the newspaper first dispatched a team to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba on Jan. 9, 2002. The first 20 war-on-terror captives arrived two days later. Among the organizations that have honored her work: The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and The Society of Professional Journalists.)