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Guantánamo Bay Prison Mission Is Stuck in a Cycle of Costly Delays

Dec 15, 2023


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The mission has relied on short-term fixes for things like housing and medical care for two decades. With 36 detainees left, the prison will soon receive its 21st commander.

By Carol Rosenberg

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — Fungus was growing in a new $10 million tiny-house village being assembled at Camp Justice, the military court compound at Guantánamo Bay that has been troubled by mold for years. So plans to house lawyers assigned to the Sept. 11 case there have been postponed until late next year.

Elsewhere on the base, an M.R.I. device suffered a "catastrophic failure" from neglect during the pandemic, according to court testimony. The military now intends to lease one through a process that could drag on for months.

At a third site, construction of a $115 million dormitory is a year behind schedule. It is meant to house soldiers assigned to the prison, an operation that employs 41 guards and civilians for each detainee.

More than 20 years have passed since the George W. Bush administration brought the first detainees to this remote outpost in southeast Cuba four months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was a makeshift, temporary mission, and it is still being run that way — "expeditionary style," as the military calls it.

Over the years, the Guantánamo prison has cost $7 billion and has housed 780 detainees and tens of thousands of troops on mostly yearlong or shorter tours of duty. Even now, with just 36 detainees at the prison, each costs $13 million a year.

When a brigadier general from the Michigan National Guard becomes the 21st commander later this year, he will inherit many of the same challenges as those who commanded before him: moldy, unsafe buildings; an outsize prison staff; and ailing, aging detainees, some still suffering the consequences of torture in C.I.A. prisons two decades ago.

"At Guantánamo, they continually put Band-Aids on instead of coming up with realistic solutions," said retired Brig. Gen. John G. Baker, who as a Marine lawyer oversaw military defense teams at Guantánamo Bay for seven years.

He said detainee operations suffer "in some respects from some of the same problems we had in Iraq and Afghanistan, where planning was too often the length of a deployment cycle. There's continually a temporary mind-set to what has become a permanent problem."

The high costs are attributable in part to the enormous rotating work force — the prison calls staff members "war fighters" — at Guantánamo, which has 6,000 residents, hotels, bars, a K-12 school, suburban-style neighborhoods and a community hospital. Problems have also arisen because of the stop-and-go nature of planning for a detention operation that one president vowed to close and another pledged to grow, neither reaching his goal.

The Bush administration brought in all 780 detainees, then reduced the prison population to about 240. President Barack Obama's team found places for about 200, but Congress thwarted his administration's plan to transfer the last 41 prisoners to the United States.

Today, there are 36 detainees, including the only prisoner serving a life sentence, a Yemeni man. The youngest is in his late 30s. Lawyers for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and four other men accused of being his accomplices are in secret talks to resolve the case by allowing them to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences.

Twenty-one of the detainees have been approved for transfer with security assurances. If U.S. diplomats find places to send them, that would leave 15 men at the prison.

The troubled construction was years in the making, as planning failed to keep pace with the reality on the ground.

The $115 million barracks project offers an illustration.

The building was first proposed in 2013 by Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine commander who had oversight of the prison and was championing quality-of-life improvements for the 1,900 prison staff members. Back then, Guantánamo held 166 detainees, for a ratio of 11 troops and civilians for every prisoner.

The Obama administration, which wanted to wind down prison operations, did not support the investment. Congress agreed to fund it in 2017 only after Donald J. Trump became president and vowed to refill the prison, an ambition he never realized.

Construction began three years later, in the midst of the pandemic.

It will accommodate 848 soldiers on nine-month deployments in suites, two "war fighters" sharing a bathroom. But it will not be ready before October 2023. A Navy spokeswoman blamed the delay, vaguely, on "unforeseen conditions" involving underground banks of ducts for base electricity and communications, "which have been addressed."

Some projects were completed during the pandemic, mostly those that benefit the base, not the detainee mission. Contractors built a new section of road past the outdoor cinema and McDonald's and finished a new $65 million school for sailors’ children. The base just dedicated a new post office inside an older building that took $3 million and 18 months to renovate.

But projects related to detainee operations were not as successful. Consider the case of the M.R.I. machine, which the military purchased for $1.65 million in 2012 as part of a long-term strategy to care for aging detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

It arrived five years later, after a military judge ordered an M.R.I. study of the brain of the defendant in the U.S.S. Cole bombing case. Brain damage, regardless of whether it is explicitly linked to torture in C.I.A. detention, may mean the difference between a life or death sentence for a convicted defendant.

The U.S. Southern Command had diverted the machine to an Army hospital in Georgia.

At Guantánamo, the five-year-old device was troubled from the start, frequently out of service before it broke beyond repair during the pandemic.

"It was well known to be a problem," Dr. Corry Jeb Kucik, a Navy captain serving as chief medical officer at the base, testified in June. "It was avoidable but not necessarily predictable."

The military will now lease another machine, along with maintenance and delivery — another expeditionary solution to a long-term problem.

Doctors on the base have been overusing CT scans for years, Captain Kucik testified, by his calculation exposing prisoners to higher than the lifetime recommended amounts of radiation and increasing their risks of developing cancer.

"Because it is the imaging modality that is kind of the default, there is a risk that, you know, you could see cancers developing because of overuse or, you know, use in lieu of some other modality that would be equally effective, possibly superior, and less risky to the patient," he said.

Captain Kucik was testifying in the case of a disabled prisoner, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, in his 60s, who has had five surgeries on his back at Guantánamo Bay and needs an imaging study before he gets a sixth operation. The United States is obliged under the Geneva Conventions to meet the medical needs of its war prisoners, and a military judge recently asked when a new M.R.I. machine would arrive.

The military has long addressed Guantánamo detention operations as a problem to be solved episodically, starting in the beginning, when Navy engineer built new cells at Camp X-Ray just days ahead of airlifts bringing new detainees from Afghanistan.

The idea of building today's troubled tiny-house village emerged during the Trump administration, before prosecutors invited lawyers in the Sept. 11 case to engage in plea talks. The tiny houses were meant to accommodate legal teams and a jury if a military judge could wade through a decade of pretrial complications in the case and begin a death-penalty trial that was predicted to last a year.

Months into the pandemic, planners in the Office of Military Commissions decided to purchase about 150 single-occupancy, 375-square-foot "Casitas," tiny houses from a Las Vegas firm named Boxabl that was in its earliest days.

"We didn't even have a factory or anything," said Galiano Tiramani, who established the business with his father. "It was just me and my dad."

The Tiramanis acquired a warehouse and hired 100 workers to build, compact and truck the 30-by-20-foot shrink-wrapped containers to Jacksonville, Fla., for the military to ship by barge to Guantánamo Bay. Cost to taxpayers: about $65,000 each, excluding site and infrastructure preparation, which is still underway.

Each container held a folded-up tiny house with finished flooring, a bathroom, kitchen and cabinetry. Assembly, according to the company, could be done in an hour.

At Guantánamo, it has taken months to install the first 50 atop a cracked old airstrip. For reasons that spokesmen at the war court are unwilling to explain, something went wrong during assembly, and during heavy rains water sloshed inside. By the time reporters were permitted a visit in July, workers had hammered plastic sheeting onto the roofs of the first 50 or so units while awaiting supplies for more substantial fixes.

Inside, reporters saw rusty hinges, mold and fungus spreading across cabinetry. Ron Flesvig, a spokesman for the war court, declined to say how much the repairs would cost and how many houses would require renovating.

"No one will be assigned billeting in any unit until all safety and habitability standards are met," he said.

Carol Rosenberg has been covering the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, including detention operations and military commissions, since the first prisoners were brought there from Afghanistan in January 2002. She worked as a metro, national and foreign correspondent with a focus on coverage of conflict in the Middle East for The Miami Herald from 1990 to 2019. @carolrosenberg • Facebook