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Guantánamo prison commander: We’ve gotten no word of incoming prisoners

A detainee inside the Camp 6 detention facility at U.S. Navy base, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on June 6, 2018.
A detainee inside the Camp 6 detention facility at U.S. Navy base, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on June 6, 2018. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The commander in charge of Guantánamo prison operations said Friday that he has received no orders to prepare for new war on terror detainees, leaving uncertain when or if the prison would grow despite President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to detain more terror suspects at the base.

Underscoring the uncertainty, Rear Adm. John Ring also told McClatchy that while the current, long-held war-on-terror detainees get to decide whether to be interrogated there’s no policy yet for how to handle future captives.

“As far as the interviews go for the current guys, it’ll be voluntary forever,” Ring said in an exclusive interview, using the prison camp term for interrogations. “For the new guys, I don’t know what they’ll want us to do. We’re working through how all that would work.”

London press have been abuzz for days with suggestions that two suspected Islamic State prisoners, men who after their capture in Syria were stripped of British citizenship, were bound for detention in this remote, wartime prison. They are currently held in Iraq by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S. allied, predominantly Kurdish militia.

The New York Times reported last week, after touring two detention sites in Syria under U.S. military escort with Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen, that SDF is holding about 1,000 captives from nearly 50 countries.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon airlifted two other SDF prisoners, both U.S. citizens, to the United States to be charged in federal court as alleged ISIS recruits. By law, the military commissions created here by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama cannot try Americans.

“I have not been told to prepare” for the first addition to the Guantánamo detainee population since March 2008, Ring said, adding that based on a current prison staff of more than 1,800 troops and civilians he could accommodate a total of 80 war-on-terror detainees.

Navy Rear Adm. John C. Ring is the commander of detention operations at U.S. Navy base Guantánamo in Cuba. Pentagon photo

There are currently 40 held in three separate prison buildings. Asked whether he believes the Guantánamo prison population will grow, Ring replied: “I don’t know. I’m agnostic about it. But there are some people that would really like to see new folks come here, and there are some people that would really like to have us not have new people.”

He added: “I will execute whatever I’m told to do. And I don’t care either way.”

As a candidate, Trump vowed to fill Guantánamo detention center with “bad dudes.” As president, he rescinded his predecessor’s closure order, enabling the arrival of new captives. One issue is whether the Trump administration will consider Islamic State prisoners to be affiliates of al-Qaida, whose detention at Guantánamo is covered by Congress’ 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Detaining ISIS prisoners, some lawyers argue, would require separate authority.

On the topic of interrogating the current prisoners, Ring, like his predecessors, said interrogations by a prison intelligence unit are primarily meant to gather intelligence on what is going on in the cell blocks, rather than find out something new from captives who got here between 2002 and 2008.

Earlier this summer, Ring told a group of visiting journalists that with the addition of two Military Police companies — roughly 200 soldiers — Guantánamo prison could accommodate a total of 200 prisoners. Friday, he said a bid to get those two MP companies had been “quashed,” causing him to downsize his estimate to the capability of holding 40 more captives.

“I don’t think a plane is going to land one day and 40 guys are going to get off it,” he said.

On Thursday a U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft, the kind of cargo plane that for years has been used for detainee releases , landed at the remote base airstrip, stirring speculation that new captives had covertly arrived. It transported U.S. Coast Guard vessels used to secure the waters around Guantánamo Bay, the admiral said.

Separately, the admiral acknowledged that a proposal to build a new $69 million prison complete with hospice care for former CIA captives was dead for this legislative cycle.

Congress rejected the White House request in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 to build a facility called Camp 8 for the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and 14 other former black site prisoners. It was first championed by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly during his time as a Marine general in charge of the U.S. Southern Command.

“The Department of Defense did not provide sufficient justification for the need to construct a new, permanent facility with increased capacity and capabilities,” Congress said in the NDAA named for former POW Sen. John McCain. “In addition, the conferees note that while the current facility may not be ideally configured, it is still capable of meeting current and foreseeable detention requirements.”

Most people think of Guantánamo as one gigantic prison. But there are many things you probably didn’t known about the U.S. Navy base in Cuba that makes the place feel like a small town in America.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg