Wondering and waiting at Guantánamo Bay

Guantánamo prison had this painting by Yemeni “forever prisoner” Khalid Qasim on the wall on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, as part of their display of 2016 art projects done by captives. The photo was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
Guantánamo prison had this painting by Yemeni “forever prisoner” Khalid Qasim on the wall on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, as part of their display of 2016 art projects done by captives. The photo was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

It’s Saturday at the communal prison for cooperative captives, and Donald Trump’s inauguration is more than a month away. A Yemeni detainee inside a cellblock is waving a piece of artwork depicting a question mark at his guards through one-way glass. It has a padlock for a dot.

News crews from Europe to the United States capture it, stirring a debate at prison headquarters: Require reporters to delete the imagery as unauthorized communication? Or let it go?

But by Sunday morning, rather than have these news images destroyed, the man with the ultimate censorship authority has instead adopted it as a metaphor for this time of uncertainty at Guantánamo Bay.

“We have some detainees that have become very good artists while they’ve been here. I would venture to guess that detainee is using his art as a way to express himself,” says self-styled art critic Navy Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke, a submariner and commander of detention operations.

“I don’t know whether it’s his hope, whether it’s his concern, whether it’s his frustration,” he adds, calling it perhaps an expression of “frustration in a very nonthreatening way that he does have a question of what’s going to happen in the future.”

More news: Prison camp commander doesn’t know when he’ll get out, either

Twenty-two of the last 59 captives are cleared to go by the Obama administration parole board, and the artist isn’t one of them. Lawyer Shelby Sullivan-Bennis says it’s the work of Yemeni “forever prisoner” Khalid Qasim, 39, who described the painting to her by phone Nov. 29, saying that when the prison art instructor “saw it, he was amazed.”

The board has looked at his file four times and concluded Qasim can’t go anywhere.

Moreover, it is not clear whether the State Department envoy responsible for making transfer deals can get them done for the 22 cleared captives in time, approved by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and to Congress by Dec. 20. The law requires 30 days’ notice before a flight can leave the base with a cleared captive.

President-elect Trump has vowed to grow the detainee population — fill it up — and has chosen a Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is on record as opposed to prisoner releases while a war is under way.

But the warden, Army Col. Stephen Gabavics, tells reporters he’s taking it one day at a time. And so are the detainees. He flatly rejects a CBS News report based on one lawyer who spoke to one detainee that there was panic in the cellblocks the night Trump was elected, prompting the captives to call for sedatives.

See also: Miami Herald photo gallery on Guantánamo in twilight of Obama administration

Didn’t happen, says the career Military Policeman, an MP, who got to Guantánamo six months ago from an Army-sponsored stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To be sure, he said, the prisoners had questions for their guards and medics.

“Are we going to be staying here? Are more detainees coming in?” the colonel quoted them as asking. The troops had nothing to offer them. Not only is politics a taboo topic between captive and captor, but no one really knows what the Trump transition will bring.

Politics wasn’t, however, off-limits when the commander took questions from his troops during an “All Hands” meeting on Nov. 14 at an open-air cinema off Sherman Avenue, the base’s main drag. An officer asked Clarke whether, in light of the president-elect’s campaign commentary, the forces would be conducting torture at Guantánamo Bay.

“Campaign statements are what they are. Hopefully, the good ones are followed through on and the bad ones that were just made to generate attention and incite controversy and allow the media to sensationalize things so they can sell newspapers, hopefully those will go by the wayside,” Clarke replied expansively.

“I have to have faith that President-elect Trump is a reasonable person that’s going to do the right things. But it’s more than just the president. The Constitution built this incredible form of government with three branches of our government, and all three branches have a say in how we carry out our responsibilities,” he continued.

“Somewhere else buried in the Constitution is that right, that responsibility for us as leaders, for us in uniform to carry out legal orders. And torturing somebody would not be a legal order, OK? So if that’s what we’re talking about, that’s hopefully a nonstarter. But good question. Thanks.”

A video of the conversation prepared for circulation among the 1,700 or so troops and civilians who report to him appeared for several days on an open Pentagon website before the prison made it go away. When asked about it by a reporter, Clarke appeared to have recalibrated his remarks for media consumption.

“I don’t think I said that waterboarding was an illegal order,” he replied, just that he is confident that whatever he is instructed to do by his higher headquarters, the U.S. Southern Command, will be lawful and carried out.

In the meantime, there are lots of questions and no answers.

Will the detainees stay or go? Will the prison population shrink or grow?

One scenario reporters ask about is whether the Trump administration adds Islamic State prisoners to the detention center built for al-Qaida, the Taliban and its affiliates, will they mix them in to mingle — prisoners of a decade or more with members of a movement seen as al-Qaida’s even more brutal offspring.

Segregating ISIS prisoners “is a reasonable assumption,” Clarke said. “But I think it’s speculative until we know if there’s anybody coming and who they are.”

No new prisoner has arrived since March 2008. As part of his ill-fated closure plan, President Barack Obama forbade it. When he took office, there were about 240 captives. Now there are 59, 10 of them charged with war crimes.

A two-tiered cellblock at the Camp 5 prison is being renovated for use as a clinic and psychiatric ward. Once that’s done, commanders say, maybe 80 new captives could fit in the remaining solitary cells. But the adjacent, state-of-the-art Camp 6 prison has communal and cell space for 175 captives and, currently, just 44 occupants.

No one will say how many new captives could be added to Camp 7, the clandestine lockup for the men who spent years in the custody and interrogation of the CIA. Six of 15 captives there await death-penalty-trials.

As for growing it, “We’re not gaming it. We’re not planning anything. We’re not putting resources against it, either,” Gabavics said. “We could close down before President Obama leaves office, and that’s what we’d do if that’s what is directed. If we’re directed otherwise after he leaves — even while he’s in office — to bring someone else in, we’ll do that: execute the orders that are given to us.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg