Making Guantánamo Great Again: The prison’s media makeover

The Army value of the week on display in Guantánamo’s Detention Zone on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2008, in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military
The Army value of the week on display in Guantánamo’s Detention Zone on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2008, in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military

Inside a vacant former maximum-security prison, the Pentagon has nearly finished building a new health clinic with nearby surgical and radiological suites. Soon, contractors will add furniture, equipment and put a padded cell in the facility’s psych unit.

At the adjacent prison, the military has transformed Bravo Block into a recreation site. Guards move seven shackled captives there, one at a time, then remove their restraints to let them mingle for four hours. There are stacks of books to browse, rugs for prayer, an exercise bike, Ping Pong table and video-game devices.

The soccer video game “FIFA 2018” is particularly popular now, an Army lieutenant told journalists being shown around the block in Camp Six, a prison where the Pentagon keeps two dozen of Guantánamo’s 41 war-on-terror captives.

It is a Saturday, less than 100 hours after President Donald J. Trump has canceled his predecessor’s closure order. In the State of the Union he’s asked Congress to make sure “we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists, wherever we chase them down, wherever we find them. And in many cases, for them, it will now be Guantánamo Bay.”

Prison commanders have been saying for months now that the troops are trained and ready to take new prisoners. But the man in charge, Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, makes clear that, on this day, he’s still waiting for the Pentagon to transform the commander-in-chief’s “policy guidance” into “military operational orders.” And he’s received none.

Meantime, the prison is showcasing “recent consolidations and current facilities” and although conversations with guards among the 1,700-member prison staff are excluded, prison spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos informs that they execute their mission “flawlessly.”

Call it the Make Guantánamo Great Again media tour.

Significant changes

The prison staff is looking forward, and gone are the basic opportunities that shaped earlier media visits. Detainee art is no longer on display after the Pentagon declared the captives’ artwork U.S. government property and halted releases to the public.

RELATED: “Detainee art? What detainee art? Popular stop vanishes from prison media visit”

News crews can no longer observe or film the rituals of Muslim prayer in the cell block, a time when the captives lay out their rugs, unaware that on the other side of one-way glass troops are tiptoeing in their combat boots to keep quiet.

Commanders wrap up a half-day visit to the Detention Center Zone with a stiff podium press conference across the base at Camp Justice, the war court compound.

“These people declared war on the United States. They are law of armed conflict detainees,” the admiral told reporters Feb. 3. Cashman casts it as wrong to say “people are being held indefinitely without trial. The assertion is not that these people are criminals.”

To his right, his guard force commander appeared to stand at parade rest, an Army posture, in a sharp contrast to past press encounters when Army Col. Steve Gabavics patiently took questions around a conference table. This time, the men are standing in a shed built for press conferences with lawyers of the military commissions, the war court where 10 of Guantánamo’s 41 captives have been charged with war crimes. Two are already convicted.

So Cashman’s remarks are an apparent reference to the 26 captives known as Guantánamo’s “forever prisoners” — men held under the Law of War as too dangerous to release but not charged with crimes. No mention is made of the five captives who were long ago approved for release or resettlement by Bush or Obama administration review boards — so long as the Department of State can negotiate security assurances.

Typically, detention and judicial systems are separate. So much so that Pentagon policy separates media opportunities between trips to cover the court and trips to ask questions about detention operations. Now troops have hung the prison logo at the war court press room, far removed from the sprawling Detention Center Zone of hundreds of empty cells surrounded by barbed wire and fencing the reporters have come to report about.

Limited information

There are 1,700 troops and contractors responsible for the 41 war-on-terror captives. But, under rules promulgated by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly when he was the Marine general with oversight of Guantánamo, only a few troops can talk to reporters in a program that continues to shrink considerably.

Old, empty open-air facilities are off-limits, with the once showcase prisoner-of-war style camp destined for demolition. Doctors no longer assure that none of the captives are in critical condition. Censorship has hardened, as have the talking points.

Reporters are still shown the kitchen where Filipino laborers prepare a series of different meals for the detainees, depending on their dietary needs. On this day, lunch for the meat eaters is to be beef stroganoff. They can photograph it but are no longer offered a taste.

Foreign contract workers scoop beef stroganoff, rice and peas into Styrofoam containers for delivery to Guantánamo detainee cellblocks on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2017 in a photo from the Navy base Detention Center Zone approved for release by the U.S. military. CAROL ROSENBERG

Questions about hunger striking are dealt with briefly, and dismissively. “Some of them will enteral feed occasionally,” an Army master sergeant says at the meal preparation site. Later, a Navy doctor briefing reporters on healthcare says no captive currently requires a daily tube feeding to maintain a safe body weight.

Cashman said, despite claims of hunger strikes in news reports and legal filings, “we see them eating on a regular basis.” He said the captives tell his staff they are not on hunger strike but “have been advised or feel they need to maintain an abnormally low body weight” to benefit them in future legal proceedings. On the tube feedings, he said: “Feeding via nasal gastric tube is not a punishment; it’s a medical procedure.”

During the tour, an anonymous Navy doctor describes the medical care as excellent, on par with that of U.S. forces stationed here “when practicable.” But, unlike during past visits, he declines to answer a question on whether any detainee is in critical condition. It’s a puzzlement until the Herald learns that a visiting neurosurgeon conducted orthopedic surgery on a former CIA prisoner from Malaysia.

New media rules

Days before the media arrived, the prison issued a new contract of conditions of access that, for the prison at least, replaced old ground rules negotiated between the Pentagon, news media executives and First Amendment attorneys. The new ground rules define “protected information as “sensitive but unclassified information about friendly intentions, capabilities, and activities needed by adversaries to plan and act effectively against friendly mission accomplishment.”

This was the first media visit inside the prison for reporters from three news organizations — Australian and Colombian television as well as National Public Radio — and reporters said afterward they felt as though they were cut off or scolded for asking questions.

At one point, as Army escorts watch without comment, a Miami Herald reporter snaps photos of a sign on the door of a room for International Red Cross phone calls. Later, the public affairs officer scolds the reporter that, at that time and in that place, photography was not allowed.

“It appears your conduct is, that you choose not to listen,” Leanos said. She later ordered the reporter to delete the phone-room photo. So she did.

Colombian television personality Maria Elvira Arango of Caracol TV said by email afterward that she felt she could ask anything. But, “they shared with us the truth that they wanted to share with us. Not all the truth.”

Asked whether she thought the people she met were proud of their prison, she replied: “They were proud of their job.”

In the prison zone, reporters saw foreign laborers re-paving a road between the current prisons for low-value detainees and the now abandoned first Prisoner-of-War-style camp, which Cashman has slated for demolition.

And a new mission motto

During the visit of a few hours, construction equipment blocked what had been a stock photo opportunity — a string of cement pylons at the sector entrance painted with the words HONOR BOUND, not so long ago described by a soldier escorting the media around as “the mortar” that holds together the Army’s values.

The prison’s mission statement has also undergone a makeover. From the Bush administration on, commanders declared the prison committed to “safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detained enemy combatants.” Since Trump took office, the words “legal” and “transparent” have vanished.

The prison’s masthead has changed, too. The expression “safe, humane, legal, transparent” has been replaced by the Bush era motto, “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.”

On a ride into the prison zone, a guard saluted a minivan carrying reporters riding past a demolished compound, Camp Iguana, and declared, “honor bound.” Leanos replied, “defend freedom.”