Guantánamo

Detention at Guantánamo grinds on: 13 years and counting

A soldier walks by Camp Delta (no longer holds detainees) at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
A soldier walks by Camp Delta (no longer holds detainees) at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The detainee in the cage outside the prison hospital psych ward never broke stride on a treadmill as a knot of reporters went past.

Thunk, thunk, thunk, went his feet as he kept the beat behind green sniper netting that obscured all but his silhouette. A soldier stood watch.

No one would explain who the man was, in keeping with prison camp policy that prohibits discussion of individual patients among the last 148 captives at the war-on-terror prison.

But he was still there an hour later — thunk, thunk, thunk — running at the same pace as the military hustled the media out, past an idling white van with a cell inside for a detainee.

It’s the first Tuesday in November, just another day as Guantánamo grinds on toward the detention center’s 14th year as the most expensive prison on earth with no end in sight. President Barack Obama ordered it emptied in 2009, on his second day in office, and people here are dubious that it will be done before his last day.

It will close “a year from now, six months from now, 10 years from now — I don’t know,” says Zak, a Pentagon employee who has served as the prison’s Muslim cultural adviser since 2005.

“My focus is to ensure that I have operationally effective and safe facilities for a mission with an indeterminate end date,” says Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, the 14th commander of the prison operation.

One captive was let out this month, the seventh detainee to leave this year, to a rehabilitation center in his native Kuwait after nearly 13 years in U.S. custody. Six more men await the outcome of Uruguayan elections to see if President Jose Mujica’s successor will make good on a February offer to resettle them. Another six to eight are in the pipeline for transfers to Afghanistan and Europe, according to administration officials, with security assurances.

In all 779 foreign men have been held at Guantánamo since the prison opened Jan. 11, 2002. Nine have died here. Those who got out were repatriated or resettled by far-flung American allies such as Palau in the South Pacific and Slovakia in central Europe.

Meantime, Guantánamo grinds on, churning through temporary forces doing mostly nine-month tours managing a largely “compliant” prisoner population — as well as the so-called 10 per centers, who constantly give the guards problems and pass their days mostly in lockdown.

The admiral has a four-year plan to build new barracks for the troops and a new kitchen to feed both guards and guarded. Also, if Congress funds it, a $69 million new lockup will be built for Guantánamo’s most prized detainees — the 15 former CIA captives, seven awaiting trial, and none approved for transfer, even with security assurances.

And the warden, who arrived this summer, doesn’t see the last detainee leaving before this commander in chief leaves office. “I think that’s an unrealistic hope,” said Army Col. David Heath. “I’ll run it the best I can until either I’m told to close it or I leave.” His tour ends in the summer of 2016.

But there are signs that life has eased for both captives and captors since the military cracked down on disobedience during the bitter hunger strike in the summer of 2013 and locked nearly every prisoner alone in his cell for long stretches at a time.

Now, according to the guard commanders, more than half of Guantánamo’s captives follow the rules — don’t spit on the guards, aren’t on hunger strike — and are allowed time with other captives in communal areas for up to 22 hours a day. Rule breakers get two to eight hours in outdoor communal recreation yards, according to Heath.

Heath says he has tinkered with the program, in particular offering troublemakers the eight hours in the recreation yard to try to encourage good behavior, without success. “We have a handful who continue to be actively in the fight,” says his boss, Cozad.

The cultural adviser seems to have run out of ideas for incentives. “If we give them 10 CDs, they want 20. If we give them two apples, they want four,” says Zak. What they really want “is to be out of here one day.”

Heath has spent much of his career in military policing and doesn’t come off as particularly distressed by a phenomenon that obsessed some of his predecessors — the detainees who throw a brew of their blood, feces and other bodily fluids at passing guards.

Earlier in his career, says Heath, he ran a lockup at Fort Lewis, Washington, where U.S. soldiers did the same thing. At Guantánamo, the troops call it “splashing.” But from what Heath has seen, “they’re squirting.”

A captive attempts this about once a day, he says, mostly in the disciplinary cell block for about a dozen of the most uncooperative men.

And, says Heath, his guards don’t complain to him about it. They know “it’s a hazard of the job” and get special protective gear for their turn on the disciplinary block, another part of the grind at Guantánamo.

Meantime, the military is still shielding basic information it once confidently disclosed.

A Miami Herald photographer who got periods of night and day access to the detention center during Ramadan a few years ago was shooed from silently documenting detainees at prayer after 90 seconds, appealed and got 150 seconds more — a total of four minutes.

How many detainees are so malnourished that military medical staff list them for a tube feeding? No one will provide it. The prison last disclosed the number on Dec. 2 — 15 prisoners on a list for forced-feeding. The number had flat-lined at 11 from a 2013 high of 46, and was rising when the military abandoned that portion of transparency.

How many people work on the detention center staff? On April 15, the prison had precisely 2,268 troops and civilians on its rolls. Now the spokesman says its “approximately 2,000,” suggesting that it dropped by approximately 268.

Other portions of the media tour have vanished as well.

The forced-feeding display no longer includes a vial of olive oil, once offered as a culturally sensitive lubricant to snake the feeding tube through a nostril. A doctor decried it as risky, to the disappointment of detainees who got a taste of home as the tube reached the back of a hunger striker’s throat, according to one of their lawyers.

At a detention center clinic, a guide to calculating a captive’s weight has been torn off a wall, leaving a bit of glue and paper. If he’s in hard leg restraints, it advised, subtract 1 pound. A black box and belly chains weighs 2 1/2. A wheelchair weighs 36 1/2 pounds and the prison’s often photographed restraint chair weighs 76.2 pounds, meaning a soldier has probably wheeled a captive onto a scale on his way to or from a forced feeding.

Guantanamo grinds on, with some tweaks.

Prison librarians have stopped buying new books, games and videos for the captives. Instead they process donations to the collection from lawyers and the International Red Cross. One donor submitted a LEGO-Harry Potter video game just before Halloween — and some novels in Russian.

At the detainee hospital, gone are the boasts that troops get themselves tube fed to illustrate it’s no big deal. “We don’t want anyone to undergo a medical procedure that’s not necessary,” says the prison’s current chief medical officer, for the first time a woman.

Navy medics still use pseudonyms. But gone are the Shakespearean characters, perhaps recognizable to the more literate captives. This rotation of troops have replaced their real names on uniform name tapes with the names of lakes and rivers — Chattanooga, Chattahoochee, Escalante, Mattoon.

Commanders portray the hunger strike as part of everyday life nearly 18 months after Obama lamented it. “We are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike,” he said at the National Defense University. “Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

There have been no real recent suicide attempts, says Cozad, just “some vague attempts at self-harm and threats of self-harm, basically a manipulation to go to more comfortable quarters in our Behavioral Health Unit” — the psych ward where the captive was logging miles on the treadmill in the cage.

Now, a new controversy has supplanted forced-feedings for attention:

Complaints by lawyers that the secret prison for high-value detainees, Camp 7, has recently begun using female guards to shackle and handle captives — something the captives and their lawyers said has been the exclusive province of male guards, just like supervising showers and conducting groin searches.

It’s no big deal, says Zak, the cultural adviser. “As long as that touch doesn’t mean anything else it’s OK,” he says, adding that the female guards wear gloves just like the men.

At the prison hospital, staff say they were already familiar with resistance to female troops at the low-value lockups, where the cleared captives and hunger strikes are kept.

A Navy nurse who inserts the hunger strikers’ nasogastric tubes said her prison patients sometimes protest and ask for a man to do it instead. But it’s her assignment, she said, and she does it, anyway.

“I understand they have a goal, they’re trying to make a statement for themselves,” says the nurse, who uses the pseudonym Lieutenant Beeds. “I have my mission — to do my job as a professional.”

Commanders call it a bogus issue but it’s on the docket of this week’s war court hearings. A Marine lawyer, Lt. Col. Tom Jasper, got a temporary restraining order prohibiting the use of female guards moving his client, an Iraqi, to and from legal meetings.

Jasper argues that the man accused of running al-Qaida’s army, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, had never before Oct. 8 been shackled by a female guard. When Hadi refused, a four-man guard team moved him forcibly — and did it again recently.

Cozad says there have been female guards at Guantánamo since the day the detention center opened, but demurs on whether there have been all-male guard units assigned to Camp 7, Hadi’s lockup. “I have a guard force made up of both men and women and I employ them equally,” Heath says.

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