General to Congress: Guantánamo’s hidden prison problems ‘increasingly unsustainable’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey listens to Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of Southcom, during a visit to U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral on Feb. 10, 2014.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey listens to Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of Southcom, during a visit to U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral on Feb. 10, 2014. US NAVY

The general responsible for the detention center here told Congress on Wednesday that Guantánamo’s hidden prison for ex-CIA captives continues to deteriorate and become “increasingly unsustainable due to drainage and foundation issues.”

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the Pentagon’s U.S. Southern Command, cited the structural problems at Camp 7 — where the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks is held with 14 other prisoners — in a statement to Congress on his priorities for the coming fiscal year.

“The expeditionary infrastructure put in place was intended to be temporary, and numerous facilities are showing signs of deterioration and require frequent repair,” he wrote.

He did not, however, renew last year’s request for $49 million to build a new Camp 7 for the most prized war-on-terror men taken captive during the Bush adminstration, said his spokesman, Army Col. Greg Julian. Congress refused to fund it last year.

So this year, Julian said, Kelly is “working within the Defense budget to get funding to maintain the existing facilities.”

Military spokesmen would not describe the deterioration in any greater detail. Camp 7 is Guantánamo’s most mysterious lockup. Spokesmen charged with discussing the U.S. Navy base’s prison camps “safe, humane, legal and transparent” detention scheme are forbidden to show it to reporters, see it or talk about it.

“The foundation is heaving and buckling, but I'm not sure how long that's been a problem,” said Julian.

In August, a lawyer for one alleged 9/11 plotter spent 12 hours inside the classified prison and declared it as incompatible with conditions for prisoners of war mandated by the Geneva Conventions. A different Sept. 11 plot defendant has described noises and vibrations inside the prison as part of a campaign of guard-orchestrated sleep-deprivation, something the prosecution disputes.

Kelly’s remarks at the House Armed Services Committees offered few fresh details from the prison compound he supervises amid a clampdown on transparency after a year-long hunger strike.

Prison staff still exceeds 2,000 troops and civilian employees assigned to “one of the toughest and most unforgiving military missions on the planet,” Kelly said, guarding 155 foreign captives.

Nine months of U.S. military disclosures of the prison’s own hunger-strike statistics — dividing Navy-defined hunger strikers from those so malnourished they were designated for forced feedings — “left the public with a very distorted picture of the overall health of the detainee population.”

He reported the detention center’s annual operating budget at $130 million a year, he said, then incorrectly divided that figure by 155 captives to estimate it costs $750,000 a year per prisoner. Julian, his spokesman, later corrected that figure to be “more like $840,000 per year per detainee.”

Either way, he disputed Congressional estimates last year that it cost $2.7 million per detainee at Guantánamo as “another figure out there that's bigger than what I spend that takes in every single kind of penny that's spent at Guantánamo.”

Kelly also noted that Guantánamo can’t handle every captive health challenge — without directly appealing to Congress to lift its prohibition on the military’s moving critically ill captives to U.S. medical facilities for treatment.

At Guantánamo, he said, “We lack certain specialty medical capabilities necessary to treat potentially complex emergencies and various chronic diseases.”

The prison boasts on its website that it provides “safe, humane, legal and transparent healthcare to detainees,” which is is “consistent with what U.S. service members receive.”

But Kelly told Congress there are limits.

“In the event a detainee is in need of emergency medical treatment that exceeds on-island capacity, I cannot evacuate him to the United States, as I would a service member.” Congress has forbidden the military from using taxpayers funds to bring a captive to U.S. soil.

In other testimony, the general:

•  Described U.S.-allied navies that sail the Caribbean as force multipliers in the war on drugs. “A helicopter flying off of a Dutch buoy tender or oiler, or a French small boat,” he said, “or a Canadian frigate, is just as valuable to me as an American ship or Coast Guard cutter.

•  Noted an increasing regional role by China, particularly as a financier of Venezuela, while offering no insights or predictions on what might come of instability in Caracas. “Venezuela is Venezuela. We watch it closely. Who knows what will happen?” he said.

•  Warned of possible blow back from budget cuts that reduced U.S.-led military exercises and contacts in the region. “Drug traffickers, criminal networks, and other actors unburdened by budget cuts or any canceled activities or any employee furloughs will have the opportunity to exploit the partnership vacuum left by reduced U.S. military engagement,” he said.

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