Some members of Congress want to build a new secret prison for the alleged 9/11 mastermind and other former CIA captives at Guantánamo, a project once proposed by the U.S. Southern Command but then dropped because of a lack of support from the Obama administration.
Republicans at the House Armed Services Committee inserted $69 million for the new “high-value detainee complex” in its spending bill Wednesday night that earmarked a total of $93 million for new construction at the prison camps in Cuba.
The move is the latest in the legislative tug-of-war with the White House over President Barack Obama’s blocked ambition to close the prison camps where some 2,200 soldiers and civilian staff are responsible for the last 154 war-on-terror captives at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
Construction, however, is not certain. The money could be removed from the legislation as the massive National Defense Authorization Bill goes through the full Congress. The same funding bill also forbids the transfer of any Guantánamo prisoner to the United States for trial or further detention.
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U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the second-highest-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee after retiring chairman Buck McKeon of California, argued for the new secret prison at the committee meeting that approved the bill Wednesday night. He announced that the U.S. Army notified Congress more than a year ago that it was designing a new “high-value detainee complex at Guantánamo Bay.”
At Guantánamo, the military calls the complex Camp 7 and says it’s built on a clandestine location at the 45-square-mile Navy base and run by a secret U.S. Army unit called Task Force Platinum.
“The one they have now is falling apart,” Thornberry announced Wednesday.
Camp 7 is where the military houses 15 former CIA prisoners, including six men awaiting death penalty trials — Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged accomplices accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the alleged plotter of al-Qaida’s 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole destroyer, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.
They were sent to Guantánamo’s Camp 7 in 2006. But because the military considers all aspects of the said-to-be failing prison building to be classified, it’s not known how much was spent on the current Camp 7, when it was built or by what contractor.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, which runs the detention center, had been lobbying for the new prison for more than a year. But the Defense Department declined to include the new building project in its proposed 2015 budget, leaving the military to say its engineers would reinforce the secret building rather than build a new one.
Then Wednesday, Thornberry revived the issue by reading from what he described as a communication from the Department of the Army:
“Existing facilities have far exceeded their service life expectancy and are deteriorating rapidly. The inefficiencies experienced in proper separation, seclusion and control of the occupants put Joint Task Force Guantánamo staff at risk If this project is not funded detainees will continue to be housed in facilities that will degrade to the point of risking failure to meet operational, life and health-safety standards.”
Thornberry said that the Army needed the new prison, “not only for the detainees but for our folks.”
At Guantánamo, the prison’s public affairs officer, Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, would not elaborate Thursday on the risk to Task Force Platinum troops presented by the building’s ostensibly failing infrastructure. “We don’t talk about Camp 7 operations,” he replied by email.
Thornberry announced the “risk” after Rep. Adam Smith, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee from Washington state, opposed the new Camp 7 funding and sought to spend it instead on West Coast missile defense radar and other military construction projects.
Smith has argued for some time that the Guantánamo detention center is unnecessarily expensive by nature of its remote location. He also argued, and lost, a bid Wednesday to strip out the transfer restrictions from the 2015 funding bill.
“In this country right now we already hold literally hundreds, if not thousands, of terrorists, mass murderers, pedophiles, incredibly dangerous people,” he said, arguing that U.S. territory could absorb a few more from Guantánamo.
Southcom’s spokesman, Army Col. Greg Julian, said the command would not comment on the beyond-the-budget request for the facility. Kelly, Southcom’s commander, had in the past lobbied Congress for $49 million in Camp 7 funding.
In testimony to Congress in February, he called the facility he sought and failed to replace the year before as “ increasingly unsustainable because of drainage and foundation issues.”
No military or committee spokesman could account for the $20 million increase in funding over Southcom’s original request.
In March, the prison camps commander, Rear Adm. Richard Butler blamed bad site selection for the secret prison, which is built on a shifting piece of ground on the base that has caused walls and floors to crack and doors to no longer close.
Two other major prison camp construction projects did make the administration’s proposed Guantánamo construction list for the coming year, and were included in the spending bill that cleared the committee Wednesday night:
• A new $12 million dining room for the prison camp’s staff, including the guard force, to replace the existing oceanfront Seaside Galley that the military recently renamed Camp America Galley. Kelly dined with troops there at Thanksgiving.
• A new $11.8 million detainee medical facility, dubbed a health clinic in Congressional budget documents, to replace an expeditionary hospital that’s set up along the coast to treat Guantánamo’s majority low-value detainees.
Separately, the House committee refused a Southcom request for $20.3 million to acquire its first full-time ship, a 328-foot-long oceanographic survey vessel the USNS Sumner to sail around the Caribbean and South America to help in anti-drug smuggling operations.
The government-owned Sumner, whose stated mission was to “support worldwide oceanography programs, including performing acoustical, biological, physical and geophysical surveys,” is due to arrive at Port Canaveral this weekend for deactivation, according to the Maritime Sealift Command, which operates the vessel.
Kelly and Coast Guard commandant Adm. Robert Papp Jr. recently raised the idea of a floating platform without naming the Sumner specifically in Congressional testimony April 29.
They said they wanted a floating platform for U.S. helicopters staffed with Coast Guard sharpshooters to help chase down drug smugglers.
Southcom can detect a cocaine laden go-fast boat, Kelly told, “making its way to the Central American isthmus or increasingly up the West Indies to Dominican Republic, as an example, or Puerto Rico.”
But the platform would let Southcom park a helicopter at sea in the region.
“On that helicopter is a marksman, United States Coast Guardsman, and he has within his rules of engagement, he has the authority to shoot, if necessary, the engine or engines out of that go-fast,” Kelly told Congress. “That hardly ever happens because the go-fast knows it can’t outrun the helicopter so they tend to stop.”
The House spending bill adopted Wednesday night noted that Tampa-based Special Operations Command was planning an $8.9 million modification of the Sumner for Southcom, and questioned whether that was an approved use of federal funds.
The committee ordered the Pentagon to provide more information by Aug. 1, including “a validated requirement” from Kelly — to contain reasons why the Sumner would be the appropriate platform — and a cost-analysis for it.