Prison commander at press conference: ‘All visits are distractions’

Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, the 16th commander of Guantánamo detention operations, holding a press conference at his headquarters on May 24, 2016 in a photo approved for release by his Public Affairs staff.
Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke, the 16th commander of Guantánamo detention operations, holding a press conference at his headquarters on May 24, 2016 in a photo approved for release by his Public Affairs staff.

On May 24, 2016, the 16th commander of Guantánamo detention operations held a 53-minute press conference, his fifth engagement with different members of the media since taking charge Nov. 4 and curtailing media access to the Detention Center considerably. Rear Admiral Peter Clarke never once uttered his full Task Force motto —“Safe, humane, legal, transparent detention” — and defended the need to keep a 1,950-strong staff that balloons to 2,200 troops and civilians even as the detention center is downsizing. Here are some excerpts:

▪  On his captives: “These are Law of War detainees who are here because at one point they made it their job to try to kill Americans. we are not charged as our mission to rehabilitate because that would be a very interesting philosophical discussion. You’re rehabilitating them from what? So we take the opportunity to provide them education courses and better themselves.”

▪  On his troops: “I spend a lot of time reaffirming to our soldiers and sailors how important what they do is, that what they’re doing is honorable and what they’re doing is exactly what they’re chain of command from the Secretary of Defense down to me and to Col. [David] Heath and to all the other leaders expect from them. We are very proud of them, and we encourage them to, if they encounter naysayers, to not get upset about it, to simply attempt to educate them on what we really do.”

▪  On the possibility of an Executive Order to move captives to the United States: “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.”

▪  On Camp 7: “It’s similar in its construct to Camp 5, which I know you didn’t see. But it’s a couple of wings of single-cell operations with an outdoor recreation area. Really just a miniaturized Camp. ... I don’t speak with the detainees, I speak with the leadership of the camps. Camp 7, because half of the detainees there are in some stage of a military commissions, is really focused on that and the detainees who are meeting with their lawyers on a near continuous basis.”

▪  On why the military withdrew a request to build a new Camp 7: “There was a report ... that was not based on sound engineering analysis, and once engineers got in there and evaluated it was determined to be structurally safe. ... It was just preliminary assessments without the rigor of good engineering work.”

▪ On why he’s limited media access to a single day: “It has a significant impact on my operations. There’s only one of me. The same PAOs that deal with everybody. There’s only one Colonel Heath and the others who are on a watch rotation and standing the watch at midnight, they don’t need to be distracted.”

▪ On whether a President Barack Obama visit would be a distraction: “All visits are distractions.”

▪ On President Obama’s desire to close it down as a symbol that doesn’t help America: “I don’t have the information that the president may have with which he has formed that opinion. My views are very myopic to what happens here. Here we provide safe care and custody to those detainees, the 80 that remain. So I don’t have anything that I could base an opinion on as to whether it is a smear on the U.S. programs in the past or not.”

▪ On whether a President Barack Obama visit would be a distraction: “All visits are distractions.”

▪ On the detention center’s legacy: “I don’t feel compelled to answer for anything that may what happened in the distant past. I do not know that any mistreatment has happened in the recent past. Certainly none happens today. And my chain of command who are the only ones that ... truly have an objective look at what we do have no concerns about the way we do business.”

▪ On his estimate of ‘easily over 100’ episodes of his staff members being kicked or splashed with body fluids across his 200 days running the detention center: “Nothing makes me more proud of my task force than when I read and see the stories of a guard or medical person who gets splashed, kicked, scratched, attacked in some way, goes and gets cleaned up, gets medically checked out and within an hour is back treating that detainee with the same level of humanity as he was doing before. Never reacts. Never retaliates. That’s what happens every day here and I’m extremely proud of it.”

▪ On his Law of War detainees: “Nobody would want to be confined for eight to 14 years. So there are different levels of frustrations. Some have accepted it better than others. Some resist, have their own ways of resisting and voicing their displeasure. But in general they all respect consistency. And that’s one of the hallmarks of our Task Force, is the consistency on the way we treat the detainees. We rely heavily on Standard Operating Procedures. Because we have this rotational force, every 6 to 9 months a new unit are coming in, the detainees know our Standard Operating Procedures better than we do.”

▪ On whether he can say how many of his staff are in Uniformed Code of Military Justice proceedings: “I wont.”

▪ On why he forbids media from seeing, filming at Camp X-Ray: “I have no operations there so besides it being unsafe because it’s overgrown and rusting it just doesn’t have anything to do with our operations right now. ”

▪ On why he lets his troops tour Camp X-Ray: “Although it is unsafe there are things that we do in the military and we can take the proper precautions and the training and the risk that I’m not willing to do with civilian visitors.”

▪ On why his staff fluctuates between 1,950 and 2,200 troops and civilians: “Because we are a rotational force we routinely have incoming and outgoing Military Police companies here at the same time, or incoming and outgoing medical teams during transition phases. Since everybody’s on 6- to 9-month rotations all it takes is two companies that have just come in and the outgoing company hasn’t left for that number to escalate from 1,950 to like you said 2,200. The accurate number is 1,950.”

▪ Why he needs that big a staff for 80 detainees held in four different prison settings: “We have to be prepared for mass non compliance any day. It goes with the military planning. It goes with prudent operations. ... If we had an act of mass non compliance, a riot, something like that we don’t have the state police, we don’t’ have the National Guard, we don’t have the federal police right outside the gate in a matter of minutes or hours. It would be days potentially to get reinforcement. So there’s some capacity that is there for that.

“Just as importantly our our manpower is driven by the number of facilities we have to guard, not by the number of detainees. ... Once we can consolidate and we will do that when it makes sense in a manner that reduces the risk to our guard force. Our mission is clear: Safe and secure, care and custody.”

▪ One his next assignment: “Nobody has shared with me, where or when... 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.”