Fordham Law

With no end in sight, Guantanamo work goes on

Karen Greenberg in Yahoo News, November 11, 2011

Media Source

In the midst of the barbed wire and watchtowers dotting Guantanamo's green hills, construction workers continue to build despite US President Barack Obama's promise to close the prison.

Nearly 10 years since the first handful of detainees arrived at the US naval base in southern Cuba from Afghanistan, 778 terror suspects have passed through Guantanamo and been locked up behind the infamous metal fencing.

The prison population has dropped over the years to reach 171 today, but at a painfully slow pace due to complex legal and political wrangling over where to ship inmates known as the "worst of the worst."

Amid staunch opposition from voters in their states and local districts, lawmakers have further stalled the process by freezing funds to transfer the detainees to the United States or third countries, unless specific, stringent conditions are met about how the prisoners would be held.

But that did not keep Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson from insisting that Obama administration officials "continue to be committed" to the president's goal of closing the infamous detention facility, despite his failure to meet a January 2010 deadline to do so.

"Until we are given the stop order, we must continue," said Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman.

"We must continue to plan for both the current operations and what could be the future operations here, all the necessary requirements to take care of the detainees."

A prisoner hospital hastily built 10 years ago, decrepit prison offices and staff houses in the middle of fields of cacti and hardy desert shrubs are all testaments to last-minute upgrades made necessary by the political climate.

"It was not built to stay around for ever. We had to upgrade it to maintain the same level of care," said Guantanamo spokeswoman Commander Tamsen Reese, noting that over 1,850 military and civilian staff still work at the prison.

With the drop in the prison population, the first three aging camps were deserted and 80 percent of detainees now wander behind the walls of Camp 6, where they can be seen in their white garb from behind a two-way mirror.

Detainees can spend most of the day in communal spaces, classrooms or prison yards. But if they break the rules, they are sent to neighboring Camp 5, forced to don Guantanamo's symbolic orange jumpsuits, and confined to detention cells with barely two hours of free time a day.

Once they have collaborated with questioners, detainees are placed in a secure facility at Camp Echo before being installed at Camp Iguana if they are deemed releasable. Six prisoners from China's mainly Muslim Uighur minority currently languish there awaiting transfer.

There is also the top-secret Camp 7, where 14 "high-value detainees" have been held since the CIA transferred them to military custody in 2006.

Its residents include Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged plotter of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

"It's a very, very serious jail," said Nashiri's lawyer Richard Kammen, who, however, has never visited his client at the prison.

"I see nothing that indicates that there is any chance of Guantanamo being closed in the near future... It's hard to see that happen given the amount of building they're doing here."

Kammen was at Guantanamo this week for the arraignment of Nashiri, the camp's first detainee to be brought to trial under the Obama administration's revamped rules for military commissions.

Terror expert Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University's School of Law, said "with each trial, Obama theoretically brings himself one step closer to closing Gitmo," but the notion remained that it may never be closed.

Zachary Katznelson, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said US "allies have refused to cooperate" with American officials on counterterrorism because of Guantanamo and its "unjust military commissions."

"That threat to our security must come to an end," he added.