In 2005, a desk officer at the Department of Defense dutifully assembled facts and figures, the cost of doing business, at the place the Miami Herald would later dub The Most Expensive Prison on Earth.
To defend the waters around Guantánamo Bay from fears of an al-Qaida attack in 2004, the prison spent $1.9 million on a temporary U.S. Coast Guard unit. Camp Delta contractor costs totaled $22.5 million for that year, when the Pentagon held about 660 war-on-terror prisoners in Cuba. The prison spent $2.4 million on detainee food alone, plus another $3 million to run the dining hall that prepared the captives’ meals and fed prison staff.
But the Air Force officer who gathered the figures was forbidden to release them, by order of a superior.
Now, a reply to a decade-old filing under the Freedom of Information Act found that secrecy was wrong.
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“I am sorry that this response was not provided in a more timely manner,” Michael Rhodes, director of administration and management at the Pentagon, wrote on Dec. 14, 2015, as he released three pages of documents the Herald sought in a Feb. 3, 2005, Freedom of Information Act filing.
3,966 days from original Freedom of Information request to release of data already assembled for the Miami Herald
With the advantage of hindsight, the figures contained in the three-page release may not be surprising. The Obama administration, after all, estimates today’s per-prisoner costs at $3.7 million per captive at the offshore prison of 107 captives that on New Year’s Eve was staffed by just fewer than 2,000 troops and civilians.
But back in 2004, the Pentagon under President George W. Bush was preparing for the war-crimes tribunals of Osama bin Laden’s driver who was since convicted, repatriated and exonerated. And nobody but the Herald was particularly interested in examining costs. In fact, Democrats in Congress would only tally up the expense in 2013 — at least $5 billion — after President Barack Obama had called the detention center a waste of resources.
Moreover, the men who would become Guantánamo’s most infamous captives, the alleged 9/11 conspirators, were still at CIA dark sites and the building boom at the detention center had yet to begin in earnest.
The costs of Military Commissions, according to the fact sheet compiled by then-Air Force Maj. Michael Shavers, was $9.1 million a year for “personnel, travel, offices, etc.” By contrast to last year’s costs —$78 million, excluding military costs for 153 uniformed personnel — it was a war court on the cheap.
I am sorry that this response was not provided in a more timely manner.
Michael Rhodes, director of administration and management at the Pentagon
But that was before the U.S. Supreme Court shut down the format that Bush created, declaring it an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the executive branch. Bush got Congress’ blessing to reopen the court and then built a $12 million compound whose centerpiece is a maximum-security, snoop-proof courtroom.
While some costs rose, others apparently did not. The document says the prison spent $107,782 on “detainee stock item purchases” in 2004. Since then, the prison has stopped purchasing books and other distractions for the detainees and is shopping for a supplier of up to $1 million in detainee basic-issue supplies through 2020.
Food costs, however, may not have changed. In 2004, according to the document, the Joint Task Force “spent $2.4 million for food for detainees” a period when the prison held “approximately 660” detainees and had a staff of “approximately 2,000 folks,” according to a Dec. 3, 2004, email from detention center spokesman Army Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter.
In 2004, the prison spent $2.4 million on food for 660 or so detainees. The prison spent the same sum in 2011 for ‘rations’ for about 174 captives.
Flash forward to Oct. 27, 2011, then-prison spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese gave an identical figure — $2.4 million — for “detainee rations” at a time when the prison was holding 174 captives.
On New Year’s Eve, with a holiday blackout on several operations, including detainee releases and media visits, the prison’s deputy spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Meridith, reported that the staff had dipped to “slightly less than 2,000” U.S. forces and contractors.
In 2005, the Camp 6 penitentiary-style building that was meant to make guarding the captives more efficient had yet to be built. But, according to Shavers’ fact sheet, the military was putting the final touches on $48.1 million in capital expenditures that included guard housing, tribunal facilities, and the $17 million, state-of-the-art 100-cell Camp 5 and the $13.5 million prison headquarters known as the Red Roof Inn.
In addition, the Army had chipped in another $7.6 million for “approximately 200 minor construction projects” that the prison would need. No details were provided.
Behind the scenes, Shavers, working as the public affairs officer at the Pentagon, was advocating for transparency — a term the detention center had yet to adopt as part of its motto. Then, the expression was “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and the Air Force major wrote a lieutenant colonel that he considered the figures sought “to be a legitimate media query submitted in a timely manner.”
Shavers was compiling the fact sheet in response to a series of questions the Herald designed to try to surface costs at a complex, temporary operation that drew resources from across government. “I haven’t forgotten about your cost query,” Shavers wrote by email Dec. 29, 2004. Later, by telephone, he said he was under orders not deliver the information.
But the document Rhodes released showed a good-faith effort to assemble some costs — even if it took a Freedom of Information filing followed by an appeal and 3,966 days to release the data.
The Air Force officer could not land a price tag for the air bridge that in 2004 continued to bring captives from Afghanistan to the remote outpost in Cuba beyond a fraction — $2.5 million for “transportation of things.”
Intelligence figures were harder to find. The Criminal Investigation Task Force, a Defense Department entity created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to help build criminal cases against the captives, spent about $3 million at Guantánamo. But Shavers was unable to get figures on how much the CIA and FBI spent at the prison in 2004. Instead, his suppressed fact sheet showed him referring the reporter to those agencies.
The question would prove prescient. When the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Report came out last year, it noted that the spy agency had two black sites at Guantánamo from September 2003 to April 2004. The agency shut down the operation before the U.S. Supreme Court would grant Guantánamo’s captives access to attorneys.