New boss for new captives? Admiral takes charge of Trump’s Guantánamo prison.

Rear Adm. Edward Cashman taking charge of the detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Friday, April 7, 2017.
Rear Adm. Edward Cashman taking charge of the detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Friday, April 7, 2017.

The detention center entered a new era Friday with the installation of the first prison camp commander of the Trump administration, an admiral charged with running the wartime prison that could grow for the first time in nearly a decade.

“The work you do, the mission you execute is vitally important, incredibly complex and not well understood by many people,” said Rear Adm. Edward Cashman as he assumed command of the detention center of 41 captives run by a 1,750-member staff.

A day earlier, the head of the Southern Command urged Congress to fund a new prison staff barracks, signaling the unending nature of the detention center that President George W. Bush opened, President Barack Obama failed to close and President Donald Trump vowed to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

Adm. Kurt Tidd, the Southcom commander, arrived Thursday night to preside at the brief ceremony in the base chapel — and introduce Cashman to representatives of the Navy community of about 5,500 residents as “one of our Navy’s rising stars.” Tidd called Cashman “no stranger to pressure and intense scrutiny” as he became the 17th commander of detainee operations.

“Make no mistake about it, detainee operations are an essential tool in our counterterrorism tool kit. They​’re an operational, legal and moral imperative against an unconventional enemy,” Tidd said.

A total of 41 captives remain of the 780 or so men and boys who passed through the prison camps since a Marine general opened Camp X-Ray in January 2002. If Congress hadn’t blocked it, the Obama administration would have transferred the last 41 to the United States to close that chapter of history. Instead, 10 of those who remain have been charged at the war court, called military commissions, and the rest are considered prisoners in the War on Terror.

The departing commander, Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke, was the first submariner to lead the detention center staff, and left to an uncertain future. He was temporarily assigned to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Chief of Naval Personnel, pending a future assignment.

He was also the last so-called closer, a detention center commander who ran the camps during an aggressive period of downsizing of the detainees, if not the staff.

When he took charge, in late 2015, there were 112 captives and a staff of about 2,100 troops and civilians — a ratio of nearly 19 staff for every prisoner. He was charged with sending away captives as State and Defense Department envoys arranged for their transfer. And he did so with alacrity, dispatching 71 detainees to such far-flung locations as Mauritania in western Africa, Oman on the Arabian Sea and Serbia in southeast Europe.

Friday, Cashman’s staff numbered about 1,550 troops and 200 civilians. That’s nearly 38 troops for each prisoner — from guards to medical staff to personnel and intelligence specialists. Many were drawn from the National Guard on assignments of a year or less serving in what Tidd called a force of “ordinary people performing an extraordinarily important mission.”

By the numbers

Cashman takes charge as essentially the “re-opener” — poised to accept the first new prisoner since March 2008, if U.S. forces take a captive suitable for Prisoner-of-War style detention or war crimes trial by military commissions.

“​We don’t know what the future holds,” Tidd told the assembly. “We know that detainee operations at Guantánamo will continue unless or until the very last detainee departs the island. We know that these missions will continue unless otherwise directed by our Secretary of Defense and our President. We know this mission might evolve as we continue confronting threats to our nation and to our way of life.”

“If operations here expand, if they change, or if they stay the same, you’re ready.”

Cashman, a Massachusetts native, got a mechanical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most of his career has been in the Navy although prior to this position he was director of the Pentagon’s Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, which involves all the services.

The Joint Task Force Commander has oversight of the predominantly Army guard force, an intelligence unit, logistics and personnel as well as a U.S. Coast Guard unit that patrols parts of Guantánamo Bay and the waters off the coastal prison complex.

Cashman ran a combined Navy-Coast Guard operation of patrol craft in the Persian Gulf, where U.S. military sometimes engage Iranian vessels. That’s just what happened in January 2012, when a Coast Guard patrol boat, the Monomoy, saved six Iranian mariners from an unseaworthy Iranian cargo dhow whose engine room was flooding in a “nighttime rescue at sea” celebrated by Cashman, then commander of Task Force 55, overseeing the operation.

In his farewell remarks, Clarke paid particular homage to the Navy medical staff of 100 or so members that tends to captors and captives in what he called “the most scrutinized military medicine mission in the world.”

Southcom surged medical staff into the prison’s cellblocks at the height of the sweeping 2013 hunger strike. And, as he left Friday, Clarke called the captives “more compliant as patients than our own troopers and the American population as a whole.”

READ MORE Guantánamo commander awaiting transfer order, too

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Guantánamo detention center commanders

1. Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert (January 2002-March 2002)

2. Army Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus (March 2002-October 2002)

3. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey (October 2002-November 2002)

4. Army Gen. Geoffrey Miller (November 2002-March 2004)

5. Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood (March 2004-March 2006)

6. Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris (March 2006-May 2007)

7. Rear Adm. Mark Buzby (May 2007-May 2008)

8. Navy Rear Adm. Dave Thomas (May 2008-June 2009)

9. Navy Rear Adm. Thomas Copeman (June 2009-June 2010)

10. Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson (June 2010-August 2011)

11. Navy Rear Adm. David B. Woods (August 2011-June 2012)

12. Navy Rear Adm. John S. Smith (June 2012-July 2013)

13. Navy Rear Adm. Richard W. Butler (July 2013-July 2014)

14. Navy Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad (July 2014-June 2015)

15. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jose Monteagudo (July 2015-November 2015)

16. Navy Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke (November 2015-April 2017)