Pentagon surveying potential U.S. ‘Guantánamo North’ lockups

Military Police depart the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on Nov. 28, 2007.
Military Police depart the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on Nov. 28, 2007. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pentagon teams studying alternative lockups to Guantánamo Bay visited Fort Leavenworth in Kansas this week and head to the Charleston, S.C., brig next week as part of spadework for a proposed closure plan that swiftly stirred opposition in Congress.

“Not on my watch will any terrorist be placed in Kansas,” said GOP Sen. Pat Roberts in a statement issued Friday afternoon. He and then fellow Kansas senator Sam Brownback first opposed the use of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth for war-on-terror captives in 2008, and for a time put a hold on the 2009 appointment of Army Secretary John McHugh over consideration of moving Guantánamo captives to Kansas.

Now Brownback is Kansas’ governor and still opposing the idea. “The citizens of Kansas do not support moving terrorists to the heartland of America,” he said Friday night. And Roberts is championing legislation — The Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act — that would make it tougher to repatriate any of Guantánamo’s last 116 captives or resettle them in other countries, including the 52 long-held prisoners currently approved for transfer with security arrangements.

Current U.S. law flatly forbids bringing any of Guantánamo’s captives to the United States for any reason — neither for trial nor for medical care — an embargo the White House blames for soaring costs of the detention center staffed by more than 2,000 troops and federal contractors.

The U.S.-government funded Voice of America first reported about the revived interest in Fort Leavenworth on Thursday. At the Pentagon, Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered the South Carolina and Kansas site surveys “as part of our broader and ongoing effort to identify locations within the United States that can possibly facilitate military commissions and can possibly hold detainees currently at Guantánamo Bay.”

The analysis will primarily focus on finding humane, maximum-security confinement, Ross said, but will also include costs at a time when the military is trying to plan for long-term medical expenses of an aging population of foreign captives aged 30 to 67.

Ross also said civilian sites were under consideration but did not specify which ones.

Saturday he added that two newer Pentagon detention facilities in California and Virginia were not currently on the survey list.

In 2011, San Diego’s Joint Regional Correction Facility, also known as the Miramar Consolidated Naval Brig, grew to accommodate 600 prisoners after a contractor added a $27.6 million, 99,000-square-foot, 200-cell addition to the existing brig with a new health services unit, state-of-the-art kitchen, a visitor’s center and entrance lobby. That same year, the Navy opened a new $64 million, 400-cell brig in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Disclosure of the site survey uncorked a new round of not-in-my-backyard press releases reminiscent of the opposition members of Congress mounted in the early years of the Obama administration, when the Pentagon held twice as many captives at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. Cascading legislation through the years has effectively thwarted President Barack Obama’s pledge to close the detention center, and new legislation supported by the House of Representatives to limit transfers abroad would make it even more difficult.

“There is no plan or study that shows transferring prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to South Carolina or any other domestic location will make America safer,” said freshman GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. He called it “unbelievable that the president believes they need to assess whether the Naval Brig, which is right next to an elementary school and a residential neighborhood, as well as just a short drive from one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, is a better option for housing dangerous terrorists than Guantánamo Bay.”

Under the evolving White House blueprint for closure, the Department of Defense would transfer at most 64 captives to the United States. Meantime, the State Department would find nations to resettle the 52 who are currently cleared for transfer with diplomatic deals that satisfy a series of offices inside the Pentagon — the General Counsel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, ultimately, Secretary of Defense Carter.

But just one release is expected later this summer.

Meantime, the Pentagon survey team travels to Charleston next week, a place that senior GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham recently called unsuitable. Military sources, however, have for years described the base as the provisional site of any trials by military commissions that would take place in the United States. Trials by military commission are currently held at Guantánamo, on an obsolete airstrip outfitted with a $12 million courtroom that was brought to the base by barge and could likewise be removed from there.

Only one of Guantánamo’s 116 captives has been convicted of a war crime, and that case has been reversed by civilian courts. Nine other captives are charged with war crimes, with the accused 9/11 and USS Cole bombing plotters awaiting death-penalty trials complicated by their years in CIA custody before they got to Guantánamo.

Six others may one day be charged at the war court, according to internal documents. But the rest are held as war prisoners, most captured in 2001 and 2002, stemming from suspicion they were associated with the Taliban or al-Qaida at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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