Downsized Guantánamo prison could take maybe 24 more captives, admiral says

Sunset at Camp Delta, an abandoned portion of the Guantánamo prison complex on Feb. 25, 2018, in a photo approved for release by U.S. Army forces.
Sunset at Camp Delta, an abandoned portion of the Guantánamo prison complex on Feb. 25, 2018, in a photo approved for release by U.S. Army forces.

The admiral with oversight of Guantánamo prison says the war-on-terror Detention Zone with 41 captives could absorb about 24 new detainees without having to increase the current staff of 1,700 troops and civilians.

Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told Pentagon reporters in a briefing on Monday that the detention center could accommodate “without any additional resources, probably a couple of dozen” new captives.

Although President Donald Trump campaigned on a vow to fill Guantánamo’s cells, the Pentagon has sent no new war prisoner to the base since the George W. Bush administration. In fact, the Defense Department under both Barack Obama and Trump have downsized the detention center’s capacity to accommodate new prisoners through consolidations and demolitions of Bush-era infrastructure.

RELATED: “Pentagon plans to raze Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo’s eyesore and enduring symbol of torture”

Without elaboration Tidd said more troops might be required not as much for the detention center — where the captives are mostly kept in two prison buildings called Camp 6 and 7 — but for military commission activities “and the other sorts of things that go on” in and beyond the Detention Center Zone at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

The prison spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos, recently disclosed that the staff had increased to around 1,700; her predecessor reported the figure at approximately 1,500 Army guards, Navy medical teams, contract translators and war court compound workers, including a Georgia public affairs unit.

Across the years, Guantánamo held about 780 prisoners. In October 2004, when the sprawling detention center complex held about 550 captives, it had a total of 2,300 guards and other staff, according to Southcom figures obtained by the Miami Herald through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. War court hearings were underway at the time, although the CIA’s so-called high-value detainees were held elsewhere, in secret overseas prisons called the Black Sites.

By July 4, 2006, with the war court closed as unconstitutional, the Pentagon housed about 450 war-on-terror captives there and the staff dipped to 1,715 troops and contractors, according to the figures obtained through FOIA.

The admiral was not asked about and made no reference to the possible release of a Saudi terrorist who is segregated from the others. Ahmed al Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes charges in 2014 and turned prosecution witness in exchange for his Feb. 20, 2018, reparation, which has not happened. The Pentagon blames a hitch in negotiating Saudi assurances.

RELATED: “Making Guantánamo Great Again, the prison’s media makeover”

The prison was opened in January 2002 to hold suspected Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners. Now, with a focus of U.S. anti-terror activities overseas on the Islamic State group, ISIS, administration lawyers have been debating whether Congress’ post-Sept. 11, 2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force would cover ISIS prisoners or a new congressional authorization would be required.

Tidd made clear that he has no say on what captives get sent to Guantánamo. “We just are prepared to receive anyone that is ordered our way,” he said.

Pentagon statement

Here was what Department of Defense spokeswoman Heather Babb had to say Tuesday, March 6, 2018, on the promised but missed Feb. 20, 2018, transfer of Saudi captive Ahmed al Darbi:

“Al Darbi’s plea agreement stipulated his transfer would occur after serving four years in U.S. custody. Feb. 20 marked four years since he signed the agreement. We await assurances from the Saudi Arabian government to move forward on al Darbi’s departure. This is not a unilateral decision and the process requires input and support from our Saudi partners. We are making every effort to complete this transfer. Al Darbi will remain at Guantanamo until all transfer details are concluded. Thus far, al Darbi has complied with all terms of his plea agreement.”

Related stories from Miami Herald