A New Alcatraz Rises: Guantánamo ready for Taliban

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Jan. 9, 2002 -- A Military Policeman with his guard dog stand ready at "Camp X-Ray" for prisoners from Afganistan who are suspected terrorist. Razor wire and heavy security are being readied for the transfer. The MPs are from Ft. Hood Texas and have been training in the compound.
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Jan. 9, 2002 -- A Military Policeman with his guard dog stand ready at "Camp X-Ray" for prisoners from Afganistan who are suspected terrorist. Razor wire and heavy security are being readied for the transfer. The MPs are from Ft. Hood Texas and have been training in the compound. Miami Herald Staff

When al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners arrive this week from Afghanistan, they'll hardly be trading their cave life for the creature comforts of the Caribbean.

Rather, this is what the Military Police have in store for them until they build a permanent prison facility:

Six-by-eight-foot cells made of chain-linked fencing that resemble open-air cages. Concrete slab floors with mats for beds and wooden roofs to keep out the rain. Guard dogs and Military Police - both men and women - monitoring the every move of members of a movement that once hid their women from public view. Halogen lights by night, no running water but a container for a toilet, a "culturally neutral diet" without meat - all out of view of the sparkling waters that feed the Straits of Florida.

And, just in case the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners have visions of staging an uprising inside the compound called Camp X-Ray, Marines will patrol beyond several fences - armed to the teeth in the high grass beyond razor-sharp, concertina wire, beneath a brand-new American flag that was flapping in the breeze Wednesday.

"It will be humane. But we have no intention of making it comfortable, " declared Marine Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, commander of the prison project who arrived over the weekend from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"I wouldn't call it a dog kennel. I call it a cell . . . an outdoor cell, " added Col. Terry Carrico, commander of the MP contingent out of Fort Hood, Texas, who is in effect the prison camp warden.

Lehnert and Carrico spoke Wednesday as the Southern Command let U.S. media inspect the facility for the first time. It is still under construction. The base receives its first detainees, fewer than two dozen, "by the end of the week, " according to Bob Nelson, civilian spokesman for the prison project.

Lehnert, meanwhile, declared his prison camp prepared to accommodate 100 "al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist personnel that have come under U.S. control as a result of the ongoing global war on terrorism."

The chain-link-style cages are upgraded detention cells that were built during the 1994-95 balsero crisis that saw some 50,000 people housed here. The cells were used for holding Haitian and Cuban migrants who were accused of crimes, got into fights or broke camp rules. Lehnert likewise ran security for that operation, but said the mission was much different.


"Our job is to take these terrorists out of the fight by locking them up, " he said. "We will treat them humanely in accordance with international law - under strictest security for as long as necessary."

The assignment issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld two weeks ago has begun transforming this once-sleepy base known as "Gitmo" into the Alcatraz of the Caribbean.

It is rimmed on one side by land - nearly all of it mined by the Cubans where Marines face off night and day along 17 miles of fence-line with Fidel Castro's Frontier Brigade. On the other side is the sea, with shark-invested waters, U.S.-patrol vessels and the Florida Straits.


"It is remote and isolated. It does make it convenient, " said base commander Navy Capt. Robert Buehn Jr. He said the prison project could nearly double the base population, which had dwindled from 8,000 military and civilians a decade ago to 2,700 before the newest assignment.

Like everyone else associated with it, the skipper cited security reasons to decline to describe how the prisoners would be transported - specifically when they would arrive or their exact identities.

But there are only two ways they could arrive - by a "Con-Air"-style flight onto the lone working landing strip or by military vessel into the port. These are features that no doubt led Rumsfeld to declare it "the least worst" option to planners seeking a detention center outside of Afghanistan.

Moreover, Lehnert said there had been no formal protest from Cuba over the plan - and used the media opportunity Wednesday to send a clear message to the Castro government.

"This force here that we brought does not pose any threat whatsoever to Cuba, the government of Cuba or the people of Cuba, " he said, reading from carefully crafted language to reply to a reporter's question.

This base, sprawling across 45 square miles on Cuba's southeastern tip, has for years been a sore spot between the United States and the Castro regime, which declared null and void a series of earlier leases and agreements dating back to Teddy Roosevelt's time. Castro has consistently called the U.S. presence here an illegal occupation, and refused to cash the checks the United States cut annually to make good on a lease agreement.


Cuban concerns aside, the command staff at Guantánamo is pursuing a three-stage blueprint for detention of of the new prisoners. Wednesday, the first stage was complete: the cage-like cells that could accommodate up to 100 prisoners, according to the general, with short-term plans to expand the compound to 220 cells.

It is on a remote section of the U.S.-controlled territory, less than a half-mile from suburban-style family housing for base officers along Nob Hill Road.

Soon, a Navy engineering unit of Seabees will start construction on a more permanent, walled facility on a section of Gitmo called Radio Range. Working with civilian contractors, they will complete 400 to 500 indoor cells for the prisoners within 60 days, Lehnert said.

Then later, the Joint Task Force will add more buildings to accommodate up to 2,000 high-security prisoners - an inexplicably large number, considering that by Wednesday reports from the region showed only 364 Afghan, Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners held by U.S. forces.