Southcom wants to expand Guantánamo’s ‘balsero’ camp infrastructure

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, arrives at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to visit with troops and meet with officials on Saturday, June 7, 2014.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, arrives at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to visit with troops and meet with officials on Saturday, June 7, 2014. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The head of the U.S. Southern Command asked Congress on Thursday for $28 million to upgrade a pop-up tent city at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo that could be used in case of a Caribbean migrant surge.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly included the bid for funding in a statement at the Senate Armed Services Committee that made no mention of an earlier request for $69 million to build a new prison for former CIA captives at the detention center.

It was unclear whether Kelly had dropped the new Camp 7 building ambitions, or just left it out of his testimony, possibly his last at the Senate before wrapping up a three-year stint as Southcom commander in November. His spokeswoman, Army Col. Lisa Garcia, said she was “not aware of a new Camp 7 request.”

Kelly also put in a pitch to keep the remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba, calling its airfield and seaport “indispensable,” and highlighting its “crucial role” as a staging area for migrants intercepted at sea and possibly future disaster relief operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Cuban government has insisted that the U.S. military should leave the 45-square mile outpost in southeast Cuba as part of normalization of diplomatic relations. The Obama administration has said withdrawal is not up for negotiation.

Kelly said the $28 million would go to “basic horizontal infrastructure” at the base “in the event of a maritime mass migration,” a potential regional challenge for which the U.S. military trains annually.

In 2002, the Bush administration built the current war-on-terror Detention Center — where about 2,000 soldiers and other staff imprison some 122 detainees — atop the old tent city migrant interdiction site for potentially tens of thousands of boat people found at sea trying to reach the United States.

The White House and Southcom have since spent millions of dollars setting up an alternative site — a ferry boat ride away from the prison complex — with a sewage treatment plant, clinic, administrative buildings and hundreds of toilets, showers and laundry facilities as well as the infrastructure for a pop-up tent city. It has never been used. Last year, for example, the White House ruled out using the facility for the mass migration of Central American children that overwhelmed the Texas border.

Kelly suggested the investment so far was insufficient for a theoretical crisis in the Caribbean. “Without this funding, we will not be able to quickly house the required number of migrants without compromising United Nations’ standards and placing severe constraints on current operations at the Naval Station,” he testified.

The general also salted his testimony with figures:

▪ U.S. forces and their partners have interdicted 158 metric tons of cocaine worth $3.2 billion wholesale before reaching the U.S. market.

▪ Iranian Embassies have tripled in the region during his nearly three-year stint as the top U.S. military officer overseeing Latin America and the Caribbean.

▪ The Guantánamo prison “supported” 14 days of war court hearings in the Sept. 11 case and 16 days of hearings in the USS Cole case.

Court records show the 9/11 case only held five days of hearings in 2014 after the discovery of an FBI attempt to turn a defense team member into an informant brought most pretrial proceedings to a standstill.

Kelly, whose command is handling equal-opportunity complaints against two military judges by some female guards at Guantánamo, was most passionate in his defense of U.S. troops working as guards at the controversial detention center that opened in 2002.

“The only people not treated humanely or having their human rights protected are the guards, especially our female and minority ones,” Kelly said.

“Many detainees,” he said, regularly confront their guards with verbal and physical abuse and “splashings” — a reference to prisoners kept in solitary confinement who hurl their feces and other bodily fluids at their guards.

Under questioning from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., the general was dismissive of a religious accommodation complaint made by some accused war criminals who said the prison recently added female guards to escort teams, and to touch them for the first time in their detention. The captives claim the new practice violates their traditions and strict interpretations of Islam that forbids being touched by any women but close family.

The Marine general called the issue bogus — “Anyone that knows anything about the Moslem religion knows that it’s not against their religion”— and said it was the latest unfounded complaint by captives over treatment that included false allegations of Koran desecration and genital searches.

“As soon as it’s over it’ll be, ‘We don’t want to be touched by Jews. Or we don’t want to be touched by black soldiers. Or we don’t want to be touched by Roman Catholics,’ ” Kelly said.

The general said the five alleged Sept. 11 plotters and “the Cole bomber” were litigating the issue in their military commission cases, where the Pentagon prosecutor is seeking their execution, if they are convicted.

“It’s beyond me why we even consider these requests,” Kelly said. “But I’m not a lawyer. I’m not smart enough to figure this out.”

Southcom’s spokesman, Garcia, said he later in the day told reporters he misspoke and the man accused of killing 17 sailors as the alleged mastermind of al-Qaida Oct. 12, 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole of Yemen didn’t object to be touched by female guards.

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Complete Guantánamo news from the Miami Herald here.