Trump’s Guantánamo: Standing by for new ‘bad dudes’

Will they include women? Children again? Captives with communicable diseases? Come by the dozens or in ones and twos? Where will the Pentagon get them, and from what terror group?

The Trump administration has yet to begin making good on the president’s campaign promise to grow the population of the detention center — “load it up with some bad dudes” — but some here have started the strategic thinking about how to handle Guantánamo prison 2.0.

Loading it up could mean adding at most 200 more captives, commanders say, a figure that would grow the prison population to nearly what it was the day President Barack Obama took office. If so, commander Navy Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke warns, that might requiring calling in reinforcements after a period of downsizing to 1,650 troops and civilians — 40 dedicated detention center staffers for each detainee.

Army Col. Steve Gabavics, the warden for the last 41 captives, said a lot will depend on the new arrivals’ home countries and health issues. Captives suspected of having tuberculosis would be quarantined, he says, something the prison did when the first detainees arrived in 2002. Other considerations include their detention status, suspected affiliation and place of capture.

“Based upon where they came in from, we would not necessarily want to put different groups together,” said Gabavics, who will be staying past April, when Rear Adm. Edward Cashman arrives as the 17th commander of prison operations. “We do not want cause any additional challenges to the guard force.”

Nobody on the prison staff has designed a crash course on the ideology of the Islamic State. But a consensus of those made available to talk to reporters on the first media visit of the Trump administration could not imagine newcomers mixed and mingling in the communal cell blocks.

Not even for art class or pick-up soccer games. Or not initially, anyway.

Most of the current captives are sedentary, middle-aged men, said chief medical officer Cmdr. Robert Selvester, calling constipation remedies probably the prison’s most commonly consumed medication. Inserting newcomers into programs for long-held captives would be “just like bringing a kindergartner and putting him in a college level,” said Zaki, the Muslim-American cultural adviser who has fostered art and library programs to divert the captives from hassling their guards. “Any new people we cannot mix with the current. It takes time.”

Meantime, it’s not clear where the Pentagon would get its new captives. The Obama administration chose to send the occasional Somali pirate to federal prosecution, something that Attorney General-select Jeff Sessions has opposed as inappropriate for alleged terrorists. U.S. commandos staged a raid in central Yemen Jan. 29, losing a Navy SEAL and managing to kill but not capture members of al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, a group that was founded after Guantánamo prison was opened.

  An American sailor inserts President Donald Trump’s photo into a dignitaries’ board at the headquarters of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Jan. 21, 2017.JOHN P. WAGNER JR.U.S. NAVY PETTY OFFICER 2nd Class

Nor has the U.S. captured any members of the Islamic State movement, ISIS, which caught the world’s attention after the last captive was brought to Guantánamo in 2008.

Defense attorneys caution against adding Islamic State captives to the communal cellblocks.

“Assuming that some of the people at Guantánamo now are al-Qaida, and I’m not acknowledging that,” said Carlos Warner, an Ohio federal defender, “it’s like putting the Crips and the Bloods together.”

Some of his clients, he said, fear ISIS, essentially an evil stepchild of al-Qaida and want nothing to do with its members.

Not even for prayer time? “My clients? Absolutely not,” Warner said. “They know nothing about ISIS except for what’s reported. And what’s reported is scary as hell for them.”

Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis of the Reprieve defense organization warned that “it would be very dangerous” to put her Guantánamo clients “in proximity to ISIS folks.” Some are cleared to go; some are not.

At their review board hearings, she said, they’ve been outspoken in their opposition to the Islamic State movement. Her clients see it “twisting the tenets of Islam to suit their destructive goals,” she said. “They feel very strongly that they’re tearing apart the world and being very barbaric.”

For now, Guantánamo waits. A recent Saturday visit demonstrated a relaxed atmosphere in the one lockup that reporters are allowed to see, Camp 6. Fifteen men who the CIA subjected to brutal interrogations are always hidden from view. But at the low-value prison, soldiers watched through one-way glass as prisoners attired in mix-and-match brown, white and beige hospital-scrub-style uniforms swept out a communal area, fiddled with food and watched Arabic news on TV.

All 26 low-value captives have been held for a decade or more. And all were classified as “highly compliant,” meaning they obey their guards. On that day two men were on Hotel Block, each locked alone inside a cell. But they were considered highly compliant, too, said Gabavics, calling their hermit-like existence a “lifestyle choice.”

Single-cell segregation, as it is called, is how commanders foresee holding new prisoners at the start: each man locked alone inside a cell, served meals through a slot in the metal door and moved in ankle and wrist shackles to solo showers and reading rooms — circumstances of confinement that are already routine for the 15 former CIA captives. They have been imprisoned that way since they got here 10 years ago.

But it’s all theoretical for now. No order has been given to prepare for new arrivals, Clarke said.

“I’m confident that before the detainees arrive,” he said, “we will have insight into what type of detainees are coming and that we will have the time to prepare appropriately.” That would include, he said, “some type of study of what their psyche, what their mindset may be and how it may differ from our current detainees.”

New captives might mean new new interrogations. And the prison has spaces for those, Clarke said.

One thing it won’t mean, Gabavics said, is a return to abuses of the past,. “We will not be doing any waterboarding or things of that nature down here,” the warden said. It was pointed out that the commander-in-chief has expressed an enthusiasm for torture, even if Secretary of Defense James Mattis has concluded it does not work. “As it stands, U.S. policy and law prohibits us from doing those things,” the colonel said.

But depending on how many arrive and where they might need to be segregated, commanders say, it might also mean reopening the Camp 5 maximum-security prison. It was decommissioned in August and an $8.4 million renovation is underway to turn a 25-cell tier into a medical center, including a mental health ward — noisy, dirty work that would be incompatible with actual prison operations.

For now, Gabavics described the mood as calm, if a bit expectant.

“As a whole there’s been very little angst or concern among the detainees. It’s been very tempered,” he said, describing many of them as well-versed news consumers. “In terms of what’s going to happen next, they’re like us. They’re waiting to see. But no one is overly concerned or acting out or threatening in any way.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg