February 12, 2014

America’s top soldier visits Guantánamo’s prisons

Gen. Martin Dempsey and his wife visited the Guantánamo detention center on Tuesday, a first-time visit by this chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and made it back home in time for the White House state dinner — a quick day-trip to this hemisphere’s outpost in the war on terror.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, took a three-hour tour of the U.S. Navy base and two prison buildings at Guantánamo Bay this week — the first visit by America’s highest-ranking officer in six years.

Dempsey and about 10 members of his staff traveled to the base on Tuesday, a day after he visited the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, according to Air Force Col. Edward W. Thomas Jr., the chairman’s spokesman. Thomas called the trip “a familiarization tour to provide the chairman a richer understanding of the operations and our personnel serving there.”

He left the base “very impressed with the professionalism,” said Thomas and made it back to Washington, D.C., in time to attend the White House state dinner for French President Francois Hollande.

The general visited Camps 5 and 6 in the sprawling detention center zone. The two camps are $55 million brick-and-mortar buildings where most of Guantánamo’s 155 captives are held.

Photos released by the Pentagon showed the chief of the guard force, Army Col. John V. Bogdan, briefing the general in an empty cellblock of the medium-security Camp 6, where prisoners launched a hunger strike more than a year ago.

Separately, another photo showed an unidentified sailor briefing Dempsey inside a cramped cellblock of the maximum-security Camp 5. That is where the military segregates hunger strikers in single-cell lockdown. The photo showed a restraint chair used for forced-feedings and a tray with military medical supplies in a display set out for the general. Coincidentally, a federal appeals court issued a ruling that same day, declining to halt forced-feedings.

It was not known how many of Guantánamo’s prisoners were on hunger strike during the general’s visit. Southcom ordered the prison to stop releasing the figures in December after nine months of daily disclosure of the tally.

The Pentagon announced Dempsey’s visit late Tuesday in a photo release on its website, then withdrew the photos early Wednesday without explanation. Some of the pictures could later be found on the joint staff Flickr page.

Dempsey did not discuss Southcom’s request to build new facilities at Guantánamo, where construction and operating costs have already topped $5 billion, Thomas said. He also did not visit the secret Camp 7 lockup where former CIA captives are kept in a building that has such structural problems that Southcom has sought $49 million to replace it.

Dempsey’s was the first trip to the base by the highest-ranking military officer in the United States armed forces since his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, toured on Jan. 13, 2008 — a year before President Barack Obama ordered the camps emptied and shut down.

Dempsey is the fifth stakeholder on Obama’s Periodic Review Board for Guantánamo detainees to visit the detention center. The board, with representation of six federal departments, is reviewing the cases of about 70 of Guantánamo’s detainees to decide if any are suitable for eventual release.

Other Periodic Review Board agency directors who have visited Guantánamo include Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, while he was senator in the summer of 2005; Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, while he was Pentagon General Counsel in February 2009; Attorney General Eric Holder on a separate trip in February 2009 and Director of Intelligence James R. Clapper in April 2010. Clapper was undersecretary of defense for intelligence at that time.

The State Department also has a seat on the Periodic Review Board but it is not known if Secretary of State John Kerry was ever there.

Thomas said Dempsey’s wife, Deanie, accompanied the general on the trip because it included meet-and-greet opportunities with military families. “They were visiting with families and doing town halls,” the colonel said.

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