Some members of Congress are questioning the wisdom of the Pentagon’s spending $744,000 on a soccer field to keep captives busy outside a $39 million penitentiary-style building at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars for crying out loud?” Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., told Tampa’s NBC affiliate, WFLA. “Our deficit this year is $1.2 trillion and we’re spending this kind of money on terrorists?”
Prison camp commanders unveiled the 28,000-square-foot soccer field during a visit last week by reporters on the base to cover a Pakistani man’s guilty plea to war crimes. Commanders called it part of the cost of doing business at the remote outpost and keeping captives diverted at the detention center.
The yard opens in April after contractors install latrines and goals — the latest sign that Congress has thoroughly thwarted President Barack Obama’s ambition of emptying the prison camps by sending some captives home and others to prisons in the United States.
Bilirakis, in his third term representing some Tampa suburbs, led the charge of indignation over the expense, dashing off a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Dennis Ross of Lakeland, went further, and introduced the “NO FIELD Act.”
It’s short for None of Our Funds for the Interest, Exercise, or Leisure of Detainees Act, and proposes to strip the Defense Department’s 2013 budget by $750,000.
“Gitmo should not be a place of comfort,” said Ross, a freshman in Congress. “It should house the worst of the worst of the world’s terrorists, not be a training ground for the World Cup.”
First-term Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp made a social media moment out of his dissatisfaction. He asked an apparently unaware Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the expense at a hearing Wednesday — then tweeted the Pentagon chief’s ignorance.
“Just asked Sec. Panetta if he knew about Gitmo Soccer Field. He said ‘No,’ ” the former farmer from Fowler, Kan., reported on his Twitter page.
He then posted the exchange on YouTube.
A military contractor, BRDC (Burns and Roe Dick Corp. Services), is building the new recreation yard outside Camp 6, a six-year-old, 200-cell prison where about 120 of the most cooperative of Guantánamo’s 171 captives are kept.
Camp 6 already has two smaller yards so troops call the new recreation yard the “Super Rec.” Each cellblock is also equipped with large flat-screen televisions bolted to the rafters and exercise machines.
Also, military psychological staff members teach an optional 90-minute weekly session called “Enriching Your Life” to help captives manage their indefinite stays.
It’s “based on acceptance and commitment therapy,” said Air Force Maj. Michelle Coghill, a Guantánamo spokeswoman.
Detainees engage in “experiential exercises” that include “mindfulness breathing meditations,” story telling and lectures to manage depression or anxiety and “flexibly handle unhelpful thinking and intense emotions while engaging in value-driven, life-enriching behaviors.”
The U.S. military also said, for the first time, that Guantánamo staff had given watches to “a very small number” of Camp 6 captives.
Watches were taboo for years, although guards posted schedules for Islam’s five-times daily prayers in prison recreation yards.
In the earliest years of Guantánamo, the Pentagon presumed possession of a Casio wristwatch was a justification for indefinite detention as an “enemy combatant” because, the military said, a captured al Qaida manual showed how to configure a Casio as a timer for an explosive device.
“While we won’t discuss specifics on makes, models or types,” said Coghill, “we can say that these items have been assessed not to pose any force protection concerns.”
The new soccer field is surrounded by guard towers and surveillance cameras and accessible by a secure walkway from the prison building itself, to reduce contact and conflict between captive and captor.
Construction costs are high because all equipment and supplies are imported to the 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba, said Rear Adm. David B. Woods, who’s in charge of the detention center.
“That’s probably the biggest misperception and lack of understanding of the expense of doing things down here,” he added. “It’s unlike any place else in the world mainly because we don’t have the opportunity to capitalize on the local economy.”
The Obama administration calculates that it costs $800,000 a year to keep a prisoner at Guantánamo versus about $26,000 on U.S. soil. The base imports and consumes $100,000 of fuel a day to make its own electricity and water and does no business with the Cubans across the minefield. An economic embargo on the Castro government forbids Americans from doing business with Cuba.
Soccer has long been popular since the Pentagon permitted sports in its evolving 10-year effort to conform to the Geneva Conventions and reduce tensions between captives and a rotating guard force and detention center staff of 1,850 troops, agents and government contractors.
Four-term Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe, a former judge, ridiculed the new soccer field in a congressional floor speech on Thursday.
“These radicals should be doing hard time, not soccer time,” he said, conjuring up a future “terrorist soccer league.”
As an elected judge, Poe was known for his “Poetic Justice” punishments: Ordering released sex offenders to post warning signs on their homes and convicted murderers to post photos of their victims in their cells.
“Our government has no business building this tropical Caribbean recreation facility for terrorists,” Poe said. “What’s next at this terrorist playground? A Tiki hut and bar on the beach?”
Bilirakis visited the camps in January 2010 as part of a 14-member delegation, Guantánamo records show. In October 2010, he and Poe voted for legislation that prevented the Obama administration from using federal funds to transfer detainees from Guantánamo Bay to U.S. soil or to their home nations.
Last year, Ross was co-sponsor of a bill to prohibit the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo and certain other enemy belligerents to the United States. That one never reached the Senate.