GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – On the last day of May, soldiers practiced moving a prisoner from the sprawling Detention Center Zone across the bay to a flight leaving the island, something guards had actually done for nearly 200 captives during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Then Army guards turned around and conducted a drill of a Detainee Reception Operation, the no-nonsense mission of meeting a U.S. plane delivering a new shackled prisoner to the wartime prison, something that hasn’t happened here since 2008.
It’s five months into the presidency of Donald Trump and, in the absence of a new policy, Obama’s executive orders to hold review boards and close the wartime prison still govern here. Commanders are guided by a 2009 Defense Department study on how to treat the current 41-captive population. But everyone has heard Trump’s campaign promise to fill Guantanamo “with some bad dudes.” So two-way planning is prudent.
“I have no specific tasking. I have no tasking to plans. I have no planning requirement specifically,” said the prison commander Navy Rear Adm. Edward Cashman in his first talk with reporters on April 7 since assuming command of the 1,500 men and women who serve in Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
His guard force commander, Army Col. Stephen Gabavics, added: “There’s been nothing come down in an executive order that’s changed or anything else at this point in time.”
In fact, a recent Saturday visit to the sleepy Detention Center Zone during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan offered just two discernible changes since the president took office:
• Trump’s photo tops the chain of command boards.
• Somebody included $124 million in the Pentagon’s proposed budget for new 848-troop barracks — something Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly failed to get funded during his Obama administration tenure as the Marine general running the U.S. Southern Command.
From the task force in Cuba called the JTF to Southcom in Miami to the Pentagon, military spokesmen have nothing to offer about what the Trump administration plans to do about war-on-terror detention policy. White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
“The JTF will continue to conduct safe and humane care and custody of law of war detainees until told to do otherwise,” said Southcom spokesman Army Maj. Vance Trenkel, who recently visited the prison where leadership has dumped its oft-repeated motto of “safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody” for a more circumspect “safe and humane detention.”
Trump may have bragged during the campaign that he’d bring back waterboarding. But Cashman told reporters that “conditions of detention” are driven by a document known as the Walsh Report, drawn up at Obama’s request to make sure the prison is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. “The philosophy as expressed in the abstract is still sort of the guiding philosophy,” the admiral said. “It’s our desire to make the conditions as humane as possible, subject to the security requirements.”
Doing a drill on how to transfer a detainee away from Guantanamo may seem superfluous. Congress forbids the transfer of any Guantanamo detainee to U.S. soil for any purpose, including health care or trial. Foreign delegations stopped coming to interview captives who might be candidates for asylum around the time President-elect Trump tweeted, “There should be no further releases from Gitmo.”
But the first test of the new administration’s willingness to release a captive could come later this year, when the war court seals a plea deal with admitted terrorist Ahmed al-Darbi. Under the 2014 deal, Darbi agreed to testify in a death penalty case in exchange for repatriation to prison in his native Saudi Arabia, the first stop on Trump’s first overseas visit.
Meanwhile, the commander in chief’s tweets and campaign promises seem to guide planning. Once it became clear “that we weren’t definitively closing any more,” Gabavics said, management realized it had to plan for two options: “Sustaining and doing nothing else different, which is our day-to-day operations right now. Or there’s the possibility that we could potentially receive detainees.”
There’s nothing to prevent the White House from sending ISIS fighters or U.S. citizens to Guantanamo’s law of war detention, Cashman said. But that’s a policy decision to be made elsewhere. So senior staff have done a survey of available cell space and concluded they could accommodate another 80 to 120 war prisoners, depending on their gender, health, high- vs. low-value status, nations of origin and other characteristics that would drive how much new captives might need to be segregated.
And for that there is a plenty of room.
On a recent Saturday, reporters got to look inside the 175-cell Camp 6 medium-security prison of about 24 long-held captives scattered across five cellblocks. Two or more were held across the street in the Camp Echo compound where legal meetings and International Red Cross calls still take place. Another 15 captives, the former CIA prisoners known as high-value detainees, were out of sight in the clandestine Camp 7 prison.
Most of the 41 prisoners are spending their 16th Ramadan in U.S. custody; it’s the first Ramadan at Guantanamo for most of the guards.
On this Saturday night, the prison was quiet. You could count more troops on patrol or peering through one-way glass into the cellblocks than captives. The cellblocks looked empty but for the piles of Styrofoam boxes containing individual portions of the iftar meal, the nightly feast once shared by a dozen or more captives after group prayer.
Gone were the sights and smells of past Guantanamo Ramadan media visits: None of the men were partaking of communal meals. At most, three men could be seen doing dusk prayers. A few detainees wandered the blocks, from cell to pantry to aluminum picnic table occasionally picking through the box dinners.
“They’re more compliant than my kids,” the prison’s Muslim cultural adviser Zaki said on the eighth day of Ramadan.
So much so that detainees on hunger strike don’t need to “be forcefully put down” for tube feedings in the prison’s trademark restraint chair, according to the latest senior medical officer, who calls himself Cmdr. SMO 2.
“This is a very compliant patient population,” he said, attributing their cooperation to what he calls top-notch medical care on par with treatment the troops get.