Guantánamo is planning for prison after Obama

U.S. military inside the Detention Center Zone permitted reporters to photograph a ‘No Photography’ sign on May 24, 2016 at a mostly deserted portion of Camp Delta in this photo that was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. military inside the Detention Center Zone permitted reporters to photograph a ‘No Photography’ sign on May 24, 2016 at a mostly deserted portion of Camp Delta in this photo that was approved for release by the U.S. military at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Military leaders are thinking about whether they will need to put a wheelchair lift into their showcase communal prison three or four years from now, widen some cell doors, add ramps for geriatric captives.

Not one of the 80 prisoners is now in a wheelchair and most are in their 30s or 40s. The oldest is 68. But briefings by senior military officials here made clear that they are starting to actively think about operating an offshore Pentagon detention center long after President Barack Obama leaves office.

“At some point if detention operations continue here we will have to address, ‘Are the doors in the cells wide enough to move wheelchairs in and out? Are there ramps to reach the medical facilities?’ ” said Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, the detention center commander. “And we’ve just started looking at that. So I can’t tell you we are ready or not. But it’s something we can plan for.”

Obama wants the prison emptied, and a Pentagon plan proposes moving 30 to 40 captives to military detention in the United States and releasing the rest to other countries. But Congress has outlawed any transfers to U.S. soil, and some members are proposing legislation to prevent transfers altogether, to anywhere, prompting speculation that the only way Obama does it is through an Executive Order that opponents of closure warn would be illegal.

“If I’m told to transfer them to the United States or somewhere else — and I have a legal order to do so — we will carry out that order professionally, like we do any other transfer,” says Clarke, the 16th commander of prison operations, in a rare media visit.

Clarke, in the seventh month of what is traditionally a one-year assignment, offers guarded speculation on what the prison operation will look like this time next year. “I think we’ll have less detainees than we have today. I think we will have consolidated Camp 5 and 6. I’m not willing to predict whether we’ll have operations here at Guantánamo Bay or somewhere else.”

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It is Tuesday, May 24, the only day of the month the prison permitted reporters into the Detention Center Zone, and 15 former CIA captives were still in seclusion at a clandestine site called Camp 7, which Clarke declared structurally sound. Of the remaining 65 captives, 28 were on a list approved for transfer, spread out across three different sites capable of confining 300 captives.

Two among them were in orange jumpsuits, signaling they were rule-breakers the military considered violent. But the other 63 were categorized as compliant, cooperative, following the rules.

As a sign of the era of cooperation, the senior medical officer, Navy Capt. Richard Quattrone says the same Navy medical unit that tube-feeds hunger strikers introduced 30-minute, health and wellness classes in some prison recreation areas. It began three weeks ago, he said, and 17 captives attended one.

“We were actually surprised that we didn’t have to convince them to come,” said the full-time naval officer who specializes in family medicine. “We actually had quite a bit of buy-in right off the bat.”

Topics so far included “stress-reduction techniques,” to include breathing exercises and the importance of hand washing to avoid respiratory infections.

Quattrone called the class offerings a “luxury” that the 125-troop team of healthcare providers at the detention center can offer when relations between captives and captors are going well. The sailors teaching the class are both men and women.

At Camp 6, where most captives are kept in cell blocks that allow them to eat, pray and watch TV together, the most frequent request from the prisoners is for replacement Tupperware, says the Army captain in charge, a special education teacher in civilian life. Each cell block has a food pantry equipped with a microwave and they keep melting the containers. “They’ll hit 5 minutes, no matter what,” says the captain, a woman forbidden to say her name, even if she wanted it printed here,

Each cell block got couches a few weeks ago, she says, and some have complained they’re too soft, others too hard. As a measure of their independence, the captives have dragged them to different spots in their common space. One has it back by a screen with a PlayStation bolted to a wall. The others have them in view of a large flat-screen overhead TV. One block has covered its new sofa with what looks like a white sheet, like somebody’s Brooklyn grandmother might do.

The overwhelming impression that the reporters are given is of a peaceful prison. But they’re shown the communal building, not Camp 5 whose commander said that over the weekend a captive threw some bodily fluids on a guard. The chief of the guard force, Army Col. David Heath, confirms there’s overall compliance with the military’s rules. In the nearly two years he’s served as Guantánamo’s version of a prison warden, he said, there were just two instances of detainees fighting each other. Both times it was over the remote control for a cell block television.

Meantime, however, the overall commander defends the need to maintain a dedicated detention center staff of 1,950 to 2,200 troops and civilians. The military is on its own here, no backup at the gate, which leads to a minefield and Cuba. Clarke said he might need his full force “if we had an act of mass non-compliance, a riot, something like.” Besides, he said, the 80 captives are spread out across four different facilities, and that makes it especially labor intensive.

Heath says he’s under no pressure to consolidate 65 captives who were held in three adjacent facilities during the visit. They’re spread among the 100-cell, maximum-security Camp 5, the 175-cell Camp 6 communal prison and the 24-hut Camp Echo across the street. One of the 65 was in the hospital, getting better from an infection.

“I don’t want to jam all those people into one place at one time,” he says. “It increases the potential for conflict and friction.”

But in a succession of interviews prison leaders say they assume the mood on the cell blocks will change on the day after the last transfer.

Ten captives are in war court proceedings, including six who await death-penalty tribunals unlikely to go to trial until after Obama leaves office. Another 28 captives are cleared for transfer. The State Department is seeking countries and security arrangements for them that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

But just over half are in varying states of indefinite detention, most awaiting parole board reviews that have so far upheld seven captives as “forever prisoners.”

The prison sent nine Yemenis to a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia in April, and although the commander says he hasn’t been told to prepare another transfer, there is an air of expectation that more captive are going to get to go. Two members of the admiral’s management team — his cultural adviser and senior medical officer — used the same expression, “Light at the end of the tunnel,” to explain why the mood is still good.

But in a succession of interviews the leaders also said they expect the mood on the cell blocks to change, to sour. Maybe in November, a reporter inquires, if Donald Trump is elected and Obama hasn’t emptied the prison?

“I have no idea,” says the Muslim-American cultural adviser known to the detainees as Zaki. “We’re just thinking, what can we do later on when we have a small population that’s ... not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We just have to go back, communicate with the detainees, see their feedback and see what it is they want to keep busy with.”

The Army captain in charge of the 35,000-item prison library told reporters he’s setting up a working group to revisit rules of what can be accessioned and what cannot.

Ramadan starts here on June 5 with Colonel Heath’s pardon, just like last year. Every captive gets a clean slate on his non-compliance record, and a white uniform until he does something really bad and is relegated to orange again. For most of the captives, it is their 15th Ramadan in U.S. custody, but the first at Guantánamo for most troops.

Zaki hasn’t spoken to a detainee for months. He has a sensitive, culturally appropriate linguist pass on messages to the detainees of a death in the family related by the Red Cross. But he is asked, anyway, whether the detainees see this as their last Ramadan here.

“Some of them believe that,” he said. “Some of them are afraid. Some of them they just don’t know. Just like everybody else we do not know what happens next. Every day is a new day.”

Clarke got here Nov. 4 on a one-year assignment, meaning he should be gone by eve of the presidential elections. But Clark puts out the possibility that he’ll be here even after Obama has left the White House.

“Nobody has shared with me, where or when,” his next posting will come, he said. “My predecessors have generally been here for one year, but there’s nothing hard and fast that would prevent me from staying here longer than a year if that’s what’s deemed appropriate.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg