May 23 (Bloomberg) -- They're settling in for the long haul
at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Even as U.S. officials including President George W. Bush
say they want to close it, work is almost finished on a $30
million state-of-the-art detention facility. More than 3,000
additional books are on their way to the library to help the 480
captured "enemy combatants" in the war on terrorism endure what
may be an indefinite stay.
"We will stay here and do our mission and do it well until
we no longer have a mission," U.S. Army Brigadier General Edward
Leacock, the deputy commander of the detention operation, said in
an interview this month at his headquarters on the 45-square-mile
naval base the U.S. has leased from Cuba since 1903.
Guantanamo presents the Bush administration with a military
and legal quandary. The war-crimes trials the military plans to
hold for some detainees may be halted by the U.S. Supreme Court,
while the release of other prisoners is being stymied by concern
that they may be tortured by their governments or resume
"No one would like to shut down Guantanamo more than this
administration," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on
NBC's "Meet the Press" on May 21. The problem, she said, is
what to do "with the hundreds of dangerous people there who were
caught on the battlefield, who are known to have connections, who
regularly say that, if they're released, they're going to go back
to killing Americans."
Guantanamo has been a lightning rod for controversy since it
opened in January 2002 to hold those described by Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the "worst of the worst." Called a
"gulag" by Amnesty International, the human-rights
organization, the camp has been criticized for holding detainees
under inhumane conditions outside the protections of U.S. law and
the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of
Last week, the United Nations called for Guantanamo to be
closed, following similar appeals by the U.K.'s attorney general,
Peter Goldsmith, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Leacock said he has no desire to keep the camp open either.
"My goal, and the U.S. policy, is to hold no one here any longer
than we have to," he said.
Procedures are in place to trim the detainee population,
Leacock said. Of the 750 prisoners who have been held at
Guantanamo, he said more than 250 have been released to their
countries of origin, and 140 others may be in coming months.
Of the more than 300 detainees who will remain, 10 have so
far been charged with war crimes by a military tribunal, and
about "two dozen others" will be similarly tried, he said.
The tribunals, in which the prosecutors, defense attorneys
and juries are military officers, may be stopped before the first
is even completed. The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule in June
on the legality of the tribunals, which were established by
Bush's executive order in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and
have been challenged by legal and human-rights groups.
It's the detainees who haven't been charged with crimes,
about 300, who may pose the greatest legal and logistical
problems to eventually closing the camp. They are subject to an
annual review by a military panel known as the Administrative
Review Board that assesses whether to continue holding them based
on two criteria: their intelligence value and the threat they
Some of these detainees may never be charged, yet may remain
in detention for a long time, said Captain Tom Quinn, the U.S.
Navy officer in charge of the review boards.
"There are some folks who have a threat value that's so
high or an intelligence value that's so high that even though
they didn't commit a war crime, we cannot afford to take the risk
to let them go," Quinn said.
Leacock said "about 15" of the detainees who have been
released "have gone back to the fight," including "one who
won't be coming back because he was shot and killed on the
Guantanamo officials say conditions have improved vastly
since the opening of the first detention facility, Camp X-Ray, in
2002. That unit -- which achieved worldwide notoriety for images
of its open-air cages and bound detainees kneeling in dust -- was
only open for four months.
Critics have focused on the interrogation techniques
authorized by the Bush administration, some of which were banned
by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 sponsored by Senator John
McCain, an Arizona Republican and former prisoner of war in
Alberto Mora, a former U.S. Navy general counsel who in 2004
fought to prevent the government from adopting aggressive
interrogation techniques, said yesterday that "cruel treatment"
was used at Guantanamo.
The "inescapable truth is that, no matter how circumscribed
these policies were or how short their duration, or how few the
victims, for as long as these policies were in effect our
government had adopted what only can be labeled as a policy of
cruelty," Mora said in a speech accepting the Profile in Courage
award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.
Since the closing of Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo detainees, who
range in age from 20 to 71, have been dispersed in a network of
five facilities called Camp Delta, where they are held according
to their degree of cooperation with interrogators and
"compliance" with camp rules.
Camp Five, which houses about 100 of those deemed "high-
value," least "compliant" and most dangerous, is a concrete
structure modeled on a maximum-security facility in Peru,
Indiana. Detainees are held in single cells, allowed no
interaction with each other and given only short, solitary
exercise periods. The $30 million structure scheduled for
completion this summer, a medium-security facility, will be Camp
The largest group of inmates, more than a third of the
total, is housed in Camp Four, which features 10-bed dormitory-
style rooms. These inmates are allowed to roam the camp at will,
eat together and have free access to library books.
Camp officials say most of the detainees, who come from 40
countries and speak dozens of languages, have learned English
through speaking to the guards and reading. The Harry Potter
books, they say, are the most-requested volumes from the library.
Officials say the guards take particular pains to show
respect for detainees' religious practices, particularly since
allegations of mishandling of the Koran were published by
Newsweek magazine last year, setting off deadly riots in Pakistan
and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The call to prayer is
broadcast throughout the camp five times a day and arrows
pointing toward Mecca are painted on bunks and on the ground.
Despite the improvements, two guards at Camp Delta -- who
declined to give their names for fear of retribution against them
or their families by the captives -- said the detainees
frequently threatened them, spat at them or pelted them with
feces or urine.
So far, there have been 23 suicide attempts at Guantanamo.
Three detainees have been on hunger strikes for up to 250 days
and are being force-fed through tubes.
Last week, 10 inmates in Camp Four clashed with guards who
intervened to prevent a "ruse" suicide attempt in the most
violent uprising yet at the detention facility, according to Navy
Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris. Prisoners used light fixtures, fan
blades and pieces of metal to attack 10 guards who entered a
communal cell to stop a detainee who appeared to be preparing to
hang himself using bed sheets, Harris told reporters on a
No detainees have been sent to Guantanamo since 2004, and
Leacock and other military officials said it is unlikely any new
inmates will be sent there because permanent prisons have been
erected in Afghanistan and Iraq. On May 8, Bush said on German
television that he would "like to close the camp and put the
prisoners on trial."
For now, Leacock says, his orders are to keep the camp up
and running. "When the president orders me to put the `Closed'
sign on the door, I will put it up," he said.