For more than four years, across five Army and Marine commanders, the detention and interrogation center here has been fraught with challenges and controversies.
Enter Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the first Navy commander, who took charge on March 31, he says, with no mandate for change.
And no special marching orders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who designated the site in January 2002 as the "least worst" place for the Pentagon's first full-blown offshore detention center.
On May 18, Harris sat down for an hourlong interview with four reporters, who were visiting the base to report about the latest round of Military Commissions - U.S. tribunals where, so far, 10 of the 465 or so captives face war-crimes charges.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
As the one-star admiral spoke, two enemy combatants held at a portion of the prison called Camp Delta were unconscious, commanders said, after poisoning themselves with overdoses of other captives' prescription drugs they had apparently hoarded in the camps.
Within hours, U.S. soldiers foiled an ambush attempt by captives at a minimum-security barracks for cooperative detainees.
In between, with the suicide attempts not yet made public, the 28-year career naval officer discussed the enemy, the challenge and the controversies surrounding the Pentagon's premier detention center at the Navy base known as "Gitmo."
Here are some excerpts:
Q: When you came down here, were your orders more to change things or keep them the same?
Harris: My orders were to be the commander, to relieve [Army Maj. Gen.] Jay Hood as commander of the Joint Task Force. Military orders don't tell you whether to change things or whether to keep things the same. They simply say, "Go down there and report." And that's what I'm doing. I did not receive any guidance from the secretary of defense. I did not meet with the secretary of defense on this. I met the CNO [chief of naval operations]; he told me I was coming down here. But I received no direction to change things. I was just told to come down here and assume command.
Q: Have you heard from the secretary of defense since?
Harris: I have not spoken to the secretary of defense. Ever.
Q: Any theory on why?
Harris: I think the secretary is a busy man. I'm not sure that the secretary meets with one-star admirals and generals who go through a chain of command. I'm sure he meets with three- and four-stars. I would say he trusts his four-star generals to provide guidance to one-star admirals.
Q: Are you willing to characterize the best piece of intelligence to come out of this place since you got here?
Harris: Yes. I won't get into specifics. I would say that the character of the intelligence that comes out of here helps us specifically understand the processes and procedures that al Qaeda and Taliban use in or on the battlefield. . . . I believe we are getting some genuine stuff out of the detainees here that helps us in the global war on terrorism, us being Americans and our allies in the global war on terror.
Q: Do you see the ultimate goal of this operation here to bring the population down to zero at some point?
Harris: The president has said that he would like to see the facility closed. I think that's what he said. I'm not sure of the exact quote. I believe and I hope that we can in fact close this when the need for it no longer exists. And I say that today we have a need for Guantánamo and facilities like Guantánamo. The folks that are here are enemy combatants, except for the four that are no longer enemy combatants. . . . We have recommended for either outright release or transfer . . . about 140. The State Department is aggressively working that piece with the countries and the remaining ones here are hardened enemy combatants and I think they have to be kept off the battlefield somewhere. It's neither here nor there if Guantánamo is that place, but the fact is that a place has to be found. And right now, Guantánamo meets part of that need. And that's why we're here.
INTERROGATIONS MUCH INFORMATION GLEANED IS 'OF VALUE'
Q: How do you address the broader international condemnation of the existence of Guantánamo?
Harris: It's an important question in a larger context of America's relationship with other countries. But it is not a question which is in my lane. I'm told to come down here and try to manage this facility. And I'm going to do it. On a personal level, just me speaking, again I think this facility is important, I think we're doing the right job, and we're going to continue to try to do it in this way.
Q: I wonder if you can characterize the percentage of the detainee population still actively, on a fairly regular basis, undergoing interrogations?
Harris: It's about, around 25 percent of the population we are actively interrogating. Routinely interrogating. Interrogating on a regular basis.
Q: Does that mean, roughly, once a month, once a week, twice a week?
Harris: I would just say regularly . . . And that's a function as much of limited resources as anything else. If we had unlimited interrogators and translators, we would be interrogating more. But we have limited resources. We have to focus that the best way we can so we go after those detainees that had the largest intelligence value.
Q: If they haven't given it up in four years, what is the value or reliability of any information that is suddenly coming out after repeated, prolonged interrogations? Don't memories fail and doesn't evidence disappear?
Harris: Unless the earth moves, unless there's an earthquake or volcano or something like that, safe houses and caves and things like that are going to be in the relative same place four years ago as they are going to be today. That's one instance of the information that continues to be of value. But more specifically the information that these folks are telling us, starting to tell us in some cases, deal with terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures: How money flows. How they flow between their countries and between their regions. And that information is not perishable. Over the course of time we're getting more and more information that is of good use to the soldier on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I disagree with the notion that, after four years, everything worth knowing is known. That is simply not true.
Q: I'm curious about the other 75 [percent]. Are they not interrogated at all?
Harris: They're not not interrogated at all. Something may come out of interrogation that we weren't expecting. We might get a request for information that we go back to our records and think that so-and-so will have that information. Or one of them may decide to tell us something. You know we have detainees that tell us stuff all the time. We will then conduct an interrogation with him. But on a day-to-day basis we're concentrating on the 25 percent I spoke about, and not the 75 percent.
Q: Could there be people in there who haven't been interrogated in a year, six months?
Harris: Could be, yes.
Q: Are there?
Harris: I don't know. I would think there are.
Q: Does that 25 percent that are actively interrogated largely coincide with the 100 that you eventually expect to bring to the [U.S. war-crimes court called Military] Commissions?
Harris: There could be a correlation. It makes sense to me. Some of these folks are quite frankly senior al Qaeda leadership and some are senior Taliban leaders. They might not be guilty of a war crime, but they are surely helpful in helping us understand how al Qaeda money flows, things like that. It's not a direct correlation; I wouldn't say if we think there might be 100 who committed war crimes, and we think there's 120 or so 125 or so that are high intelligence value, those are a match. I would say if there was a match, it's probably coincidental more than anything else.
Q: If the tribunals were to go away, and you see a continuing need to detain enemy combatants, how long would you be able to sleep peacefully . . . 5, 10, 20 years . . . as an American?
Harris: I think for the long haul. If we tell the truth about this place and the truth is told, reported, I think that most Americans will sleep soundly knowing that we are keeping dangerous men off the streets. . . . I truly believe that they are dangerous men intent on jihad.
IF A DEATH OCCURS FIRST TASK: FIGURE OUT WHY THE PERSON DIED
Q: What happens when someone dies at Camp Delta?
Harris: That's a great question. We have thought about it quite a bit, not just me when I say we, I mean all of us here. . . . When that eventuality occurs, and there's every chance in a population of this size that that eventuality will ultimately occur at some point in time, we will conduct an autopsy because we want to understand why the person died.
Harris: Most likely here. . . . I would like it to be here. But we have to bring a pathologist here. So that takes time. So we have that on call. We have a Muslim chaplain on call. We have explored the requirements in the Islamic faith on burial. We know that the desire is to be buried within about six to eight hours during the day. But if there's uncertainty about the cause of death, then we are allowed then to delay that as long as we are forthwith with that. So I believe we are on solid ground to delay the burial as long as we are forthwith with that intent to bury that person as soon as possible. And the reason we are delaying is to ascertain the cause of death. And by that time, we should have a clear view on where the burial [would be]. I can't tell you today that the burial will be here in Guantánamo. I think it could be here. We have experts to tell us how the body is to be prepared, the direction, the side and all that. And we have the people that can conduct the ceremony. Certainly the chaplain that is on call would come to conduct the ceremony. And I believe we can do it here. But that decision has not been made.
Q: Is that day near?
Harris: I don't think so. I don't think it's any clearer yesterday or today. The population varies in age.
Q: Is there anybody who is really, really ill?
Harris: Really, really ill? Like you mean with some chronic disease? No. Not that I'm aware of. There are people with latent tuberculosis. There are people with heart conditions. You know we had angioplasty here at some point in the recent past. There are diabetics and things like that. But I don't know of any imminent deaths. There are suicide attempts, as you know. And we have a great medical staff that acts aggressively and a very observant guard force. That said, you know we have almost 500 detainees we've had here for four years.
Q: Is there any option on the table that the body might be returned to a family?
Harris: I would say it's an option on the table. But I can't place a likelihood on it. All options like that are on the table.
Q: When we asked the doctor at the hospital the same question - What happens if somebody dies of natural causes, what would you do? - the first thing he said is that he would try to persuade the world that it was natural causes.
Harris: My first thing is to figure out why the person died. . . . We're going to be subjected to a lot of questions, and rightfully so. Legitimate questions. Why did this person die? Did you have something to do with it? Was it of natural causes? And I believe, if it is of natural causes, we're still going to be criticized. There will be people who believe that it wasn't due to natural causes. And so we have a mission set to tell the truth. . . . We should try to be as convincing of the truth as we can be. And if it turns out that we are not believed, then all we can do is stand on truth.
Q: Is there a part of the plan to bring in an observer for the autopsy, a pathologist, or the [International Committee of the Red Cross], I don't know?
Harris: I don't know either, but it's a good idea. And I believe that, if we can, we will.
Q: But that's not part of the planning now?
Harris: No. It's not part of the plan as I know it. But it's a great point and maybe we'll do it.
ASTROTURF FOR CAMP? TRYING TO IMPROVE DETAINEES' LIVES
Q: You are putting AstroTurf in Camp 4, [the medium-security portion of the prison where up to 175 captives live in barracks]?
Harris: I have asked some folks to look at getting some AstroTurf.
Q: You're investing in infrastructure . . . . You don't see an end in sight?
Harris: What I'm investing in is, every day we're trying to make the life of the detainees better. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decision is, that doesn't affect, I mean the case before the Supreme Court is not about whether we should have Guantánamo as a detention facility. The case before the Supreme Court is whether we should be allowed to have war-crimes tribunals. . . . So for that reason, yes, I've asked some folks to look at putting AstroTurf on some of the athletic fields in Camp 4. We've invested $30 million in Camp 6. That's going to be finished on schedule.
SHAPING GITMO'S FUTURE TWO-YEAR GOAL: FEWER DETAINEES, GUARDS
Q: What do you figure the detention operation will look like by the time you leave [your two-year post]?
Harris: I'm hopeful that the number of detainees here will be smaller than those we have today. By that I mean that those detainees who are earmarked for either release or transfer, I'm hopeful their countries will in fact take them. So, . . . the number of detainees would be smaller. I hope therefore that the number of guard force that's required to manage those detainees would be smaller. So when I leave here in two years, I'd like to see [fewer] detainees and less military requirements to guard those detainees.
Q: Have you talked to a detainee?
Harris: I've only talked to one or two just in passing . . . maybe one just in walkabout. But I don't engage in long-term discussions or things like that.
Q: They know who you are?
Harris: They knew who I was, I believe, before I got here. For a while they were calling me "the new general." Now I think they know I'm an admiral.
Q: Have you read the Koran?
Harris: I have, as a matter of fact. I read it in one of the other excursions I had. I profess no expertise in it whatsoever.
NAVY'S ROLE ARMY, MARINES CAN PUT MORE TROOPS IN MIDEAST Q: It's getting mighty Navy around here. Everywhere you look it's kind of blue. Is that by design? By default? And what does that tell us?
Harris: It is by design in that the chief of naval operations has made a concerted effort to relieve the Army and Marine Corps of jobs where they can - so they can then put more forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. To that extent, the Navy has taken a Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa. That frees up Marines to do other things. The Army essentially had Gitmo. The CNO saw an opportunity to provide some relief for the Army, so he said, "OK, we'll take the headquarters piece." And I think all of that is a good thing. It's Navy continuing to step up to the plate.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Besides Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, Sara Hussein of The Saudi Press Agency, Jane Sutton of Reuters and Carol J. Williams of The Los Angeles Times also asked questions.
HARRY B. HARRIS JR. Navy rear admiral
* Born: Yokosuka, Japan. His father was a sailor there after World War II; his mother was a Japanese citizen.
* Grew up: Moved to Tennessee at age 2, when his father retired from the Navy; family relocated to northern Florida.
* Education: U.S. Naval Academy graduate in 1978. Has studied at Georgetown, Harvard and Oxford universities.
* Specialty: Aviation, aboard P-3 spy planes. A Navy biography says he has logged 4,400 flight hours in maritime surveillance, more than 400 of them in combat operations.
* Service: Has served stateside, in the Persian Gulf and Pacific regions. His war-fighting experience dates back to his role as tactical action officer on the aircraft carrier Saratoga during the American air strikes on Libya in the 1980s.