Could an empty field in the U.S. be ‘Guantánamo North’?

President Barack Obama gestures about wearing a hardhat and safety goggles during his tour at ArcelorMittal, a steel mill in Cleveland, Nov. 14, 2013.
President Barack Obama gestures about wearing a hardhat and safety goggles during his tour at ArcelorMittal, a steel mill in Cleveland, Nov. 14, 2013. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Obama administration is considering the option of building a “Guantánamo North” from scratch as it writes a proposal to Congress on how to close the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba by moving some captives to lockups in the United States, a Defense Department official with knowledge of the plan says.

While the Pentagon has only acknowledged scouting U.S. military lockups in Kansas and South Carolina — to the consternation of those states’ governors — the administration is considering other sites and communities across the United States.

“We’re working with the inter agency [other government departments] to come up with some other ideas, some other places we’ll visit,” the official told the Miami Herald. “Of course, Gitmo was built on a place where there was no detention facility. So there is the option of what you could call a greenfield at a location where there is nothing now.”

The draft plan is being written for Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s signature, according to those who have seen it, and includes legislative fixes that would allow construction or renovations of facilities in the U.S., transfers of detainees and might include housing for guards. Such a move would likely require fast-track appropriations for military construction.

Congress has been looking favorably at a $76 million request from the Southern Command, which has oversight of Guantánamo’s prison, to build a new, dormitory-style barracks for Army prison guards at the Detention Center Zone on the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. Separately, though, Southcom has unsuccessfully lobbied Congress for years for $69 million to build a new Guantánamo prison building, Camp 7, for 15 former CIA captives.

Construction at the base is more expensive because building materials and workers, typically foreign contract laborers, are imported to the 45-square-mile base by barge and aircraft.

A Pentagon contractor would likely get the job to build the so-called Guantánamo North. But a community could get economic benefits — more military families, more housing construction, goods and services. “Some locations might welcome the economic stimulus that this would provide,” said the official who spoke about the plan anonymously because the White House wants little publicity until it is delivered.

If approved by Congress, it’s unclear how swiftly such a prison could be built. Several firms that specialize in prison construction declined to be interviewed for this article because they have or hope to have work on future lockups for Guantánamo captives, wherever they land.

A military contractor built the Navy’s newest brig, a 400-cell, $64 million facility in Chesapeake, Virginia, in 16 months. Construction started less than five months after the contract was awarded.

Retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, an engineer who had oversight of construction of first iterations of the Guantánamo detention center, camps — X-Ray and Delta — said Thursday that “anything is possible” if the administration chose to fast-track a prison on an empty field.

“But it is not necessarily practical nor desirable,” the general said by email. “Guantánamo was built in a hurry in 2002 because of military necessity and the location was selected for political expediency.

“I simply find it hard to believe there isn’t a prison in this country to incarcerate the bad actors,” added Lehnert, a proponent of closing the detention center in Cuba.

In May, Republican Sen. John McCain, who as a 2008 presidential candidate advocated Guantánamo prison closure, called on the White House to deliver a specific plan that Congress could vote on to decide whether to lift an embargo on the transfer of Guantánamo captives to U.S. soil for any reason — not detention, not trial, not health treatment.

A Defense Department team drew up a bare bones plan but, as first reported by The Washington Post Aug. 10, it hit a snag when Department of Justice lawyers vetoed a proposal to include a federal lockup at Thomson, Illinois, as a relocation site. First-term Obama administration officials had liked the Thomson prison as a proposed Guantánamo North site because at the time it was an empty state facility that could be renovated for military use.

But some Illinois politicians and Congress opposed it. For the Federal Bureau of Prisons to purchase it from the state for $165 million in 2012, then-Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that it would never house former Guantánamo prisoners. Apparently, the architects of the original plan believed that pledge expired when Holder left the job.

It did not, two Obama administration officials said. Now the Pentagon is trying to put together a more sophisticated plan, starting with surveys of existing prisons, that would, at Congress’ request, include proposed costs. That way, the White House, which estimates it costs $3.4 million a year for each Guantánamo detainee, can choose to frame a U.S. lockup as more cost effective.

In May, White House counter-terror adviser Lisa Monaco called the prison an “albatross” draining U.S. taxpayer funds and troops’ talents.

Of the 116 captives at the prison, 52 are cleared for repatriation or resettlement abroad, provided the State Department can get security assurances. The rest would theoretically be transferred to the United States if they are not approved for release through regular parole-board reviews. The detention center now has a 2,000-member staff, mostly soldiers but also sailors, Pentagon civilians and contractors in part because it is run on the backs of National Guard forces that do nine-month tours.

Those familiar with the evolving plan won’t say whether it will include a vision of how a smaller, more consolidated single-building detention center and adjacent war court complex would be staffed.

Congress returns after Labor Day, but there is still no timetable for delivery. “We don't have a timeline on when it will be delivered to Congress,” said Myles B. Caggins III, assistant press secretary at the National Security Council.