GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Twenty months after it opened as a short-term solution early in America's war on terrorism, this much-criticized military detention and interrogation camp is evolving from wire mesh to concrete.
The hastily erected Camp Delta for "enemy combatants" will make a significant leap toward permanence with a previously undisclosed fifth phase that will be hard-sided and take a year to build, The Herald has learned.
Workers are also retrofitting a makeshift courtroom in case some of the 660 detainees from 42 countries, most of them suspected al Qaeda members or Taliban soldiers captured in Afghanistan, are tried before a military commission.
The developments suggest that the Bush administration is literally pouring concrete around its controversial policy of indefinitely holding alleged terrorists and supporters in legal limbo, without prisoner-of-war rights.
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"[This] should exist as long as the global war on terrorism is ongoing if it helps our nation and our allies win," said camp commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. "We are exceptionally good at developing intelligence that will help defeat the scourge of terrorism."
Many legal scholars and human rights groups continue to argue that the policy unnecessarily bends U.S. law and undermines the stability of the Geneva Conventions when instead the existing legal system could be modified to meet intelligence security needs.
But calls to change the approach seem increasingly moot as workers throw up ever more durable structures, also including dormitory housing for 2,000 soldiers here.
The new "Camp Five" will take three times longer to build than the four existing camps, which are made from wire mesh and metal atop concrete slabs, with chain-link fences and wood towers.
"It is a hard-sided concrete building," Miller said. "Unfortunately, we have to ship everything into Guantanamo Bay by sea, and it takes time to get the materials down here."
The contractor is Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney's former company, Texas-based Halliburton. The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the subsidiary received $1.3 billion in government business last year - much of it, like this, without having to enter a bid.
Halliburton referred questions to Navy public affairs officer John Peters, who said via e-mail that Camp Five will have about 24,000 square feet when completed in mid-2004. It was part of a $25 million task order issued June 6.
Miller said it will increase Camp Delta's detainee capacity by 100, to 1,100, but its main purpose will be "an enlargement of our ability to do interrogations" - now conducted in trailers at the camp's edge.
Told of the development, Wendy Patten of Human Rights Watch wondered about the implication of an interrogation facility that included cells.
"It's interesting they chose to frame it as an interrogation facility," Patten said. "Does it become the camp to house the people who are the subject of the more intensive interrogations, or whose cooperation they haven't been able to obtain?"
Patten also said the news of "a commitment to a level of permanence we haven't seen up to now" likely means that analysis of detainee releases has been wrong. Some commentators have said the military may have decided to draw down the numbers held here.
Sixty-four have been released and four transferred to Saudi Arabia for continued detention, said Maj. John Smith, a military spokesman.
Yale Law School professor Harold Koh, who represented Cuban and Haitian migrants at the Guantanamo base in 1994-95, said by phone that the construction means "we are just getting further and further in" to an alternative justice system outside the rule of law and unauthorized by Congress.
"If everyone thought about where this is leading us, they might have doubts about whether this is where we want to go," Koh said. "We have set up an offshore prison camp in an extrajudicial zone where people have no rights, and we assume no one is going to follow our lead . . . . "
For example, he noted, Indonesia is now building an island detention camp for alleged rebels.
The Bush administration says al Qaeda and the Taliban broke the laws of war and so none qualify as prisoners of war. It did not first grant each detainee a hearing, as one of the Geneva Conventions requires "should any doubt arise" about status.
Ratified in 1955 and invoked in the War Crimes Act of 1996, the international treaty is also U.S. law. It says POWs cannot be prosecuted for having attacked enemy soldiers and, in war-crime trials, are entitled to the same procedures their captors would receive - a court-martial with appeals to independent civilian judges.
The rules announced for "enemy combatants" trials provide no combat immunity, and appeals stay within the military chain of command.
President Bush has named six detainees eligible for trial. None has been charged.
Should the military commission trials go forward, those at Guantanamo would take place in a former control tower once slated for demolition. Its airstrip was left unusably pitted by tents during the last rafter crisis.
Formerly known as "the Pink Palace," the humble headquarters annex has been repainted yellow in anticipation of intense global scrutiny.
Its windows are blocked, but Smith said the inside has a traditional layout and cherrywood furniture. There has been no order to build an execution chamber, Miller said.
Across the bay, a new media center with 22 Internet ports and two plasma television sets is nearly complete. Smith said that a pool of reporters would be allowed into the commission chamber and that others would watch via closed-circuit TV.
The base can house 174 visiting reporters, diplomats, officials and others in the event of trials. But the numbers may not be swelled much by civilian defense attorneys, who can volunteer to assist the assigned military defense counsel at their own expense.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys has said it would be "unethical" to appear under rules that allow monitoring of attorneys' conversations with clients and retrials for acquitted defendants.
The American Bar Association has also expressed reservations, singling out a rule that bars civilian lawyers from seeing classified evidence even though they are required to obtain top-secret clearance.
Left unanswered is what will become of those against whom there is insufficient evidence for trial but who may be deemed too dangerous to free.
"It's a tough spot - and a totally unnecessary one, which is what's so excruciating," said Ken Hurwitz of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
He said that if the United States were to use long-standing legal procedures for handling POWs and trying war criminals, it would not be accused of acting with arbitrary lawlessness.
Smith said that such judgments are premature. He listed the ways in which commission rules parallel those of traditional trials - presumption of innocence, a prosecutor's burden to prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt, a defense attorney, and the right to remain silent.
"It's very easy to be critical of a process when it's new and you haven't seen it in action yet," Smith said. "I think at the end of the day, people will say the accused had his day in court."