As the Obama administration downsizes the number of captives, the size of the Guantánamo prison staff has stayed the same since 2013.
Just last week 100 or so military police from California and Maryland were overlapping with departing troops at the most expensive prison on earth — a routine Army rotation that meant there were at least 33 soldiers and civilians at the prison complex for each Guantánamo captive.
In Indianapolis earlier this month, family and friends bade farewell to 60 National Guard infantrymen bound for Fort Bliss, Texas, to train for a nine-month Guantánamo prison tour. And at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, a unit of Puerto Rican Army Reserve MPs trained last week at a mock prison camp compound for a Spring 2017 call-up to Guantánamo Bay.
Even as the Obama administration expects to empty its wartime prison of all but the last 40 or so detainees, the military has declined to downsize the staff that surged to around 2,000 in 2013 when more than 100 captives waged a mass hunger strike.
Today, the prison holds 61 detainees, 10 of them charged with war crimes, in at least four different sites in the sprawling Detention Center Zone. Forty-five or fewer are held in two penitentiary-style buildings, Camps 5 and 6, capable of housing 300 prisoners. But until one of those buildings is shut down, commander Rear Adm. Peter Clarke doesn’t think it’s wise to reduce the guard force.
“What drives the number of personnel, specifically the number of Military Police companies and the number of medical personnel that we have for detention operations, is the number of facilities that we have to operate,” he told reporters the morning after his troops put 15 captives on an Air Force cargo plane to the United Arab Emirates.
He also noted that the 2,000-strong prison staff at the 6,000-resident Navy base was all alone down there with no State Police or National Guard outside the gate to help in “some type of mass riot or mass noncompliance.”
At least a quarter of the detainees these days are already kept in single-cell captivity. They include 15 former CIA captives segregated in a clandestine maximum-security compound; the cleared-for-release author of “Guantánamo Diary,” who has spent years in Camp Echo segregation and a “handful of non-religious fasters,” low-value detainees on hunger strike.
In 2013, when more than 100 of 166 captives went on a hunger strike in communal captivity, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly surged the force to put every captive in single-cell detention. Those still on hunger strike remain there because it’s easier to watch whether they eat and throw it up, easier to offer them a can of Ensure through a slot in their cell door, and easier, if they refuse to drink it, to tackle and shackle them into a restraint chair for a tube feeding.
A succession of officers who refused to be named in this article said no commander willingly returns forces unless they’re getting in trouble or their leaders can’t keep them occupied. On July 29, for one unit, that meant training in a field, not one of the many empty cellblocks, on how to put down riots. And last week 250 troops were given permission to tour a warship that stopped by the base on the way to its commissioning in Philadelphia.
A wallet-sized card tells each arriving troop, “What you CAN’T talk about,” notably “political/legal discussions” and “speculation on detainee releases.” Each new troop also gets a “Welcome Aboard!” letter from the admiral, calling the prison staff an “elite group of men and women who excel in this critical ‘no fail’ mission.”
So, while there could be 41 or fewer captives in Guantánamo by the time Barack Obama leaves office, commanders won’t comment on GOP candidate Donald Trump’s vow to “load it up with some bad dudes” if he’s elected president. Speaking in February, Trump also condemned the high costs of running the prison and floated the idea of outsourcing prison operations to Cuba.
In the military lingo, they call it right seat, left seat — the process by which a soldier trains his or her replacement in a military mission. At Gitmo, commanders say, it’s a never-ending process at the prison where today there are roughly 33 staff for every prisoner.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of “Rogue Justice” on the War on Terror, called today’s staff-to-prisoner ratio “ridiculous,” and suggested there could be a politically motivated lack of will to downsize the staff by the Obama administration.
“It’s yet another piece of money in the War on Terror that we don’t need to be expending, at least not for the reasons stated,” she said. “When was the last time they needed to put down a revolt?”
In 2015, the White House estimated annual prison costs at $455 million. Divide that figure by the 61 detainees there today and that works out to nearly $7.29 million per prisoner. But the costs include not just caring for, feeding and putting detainees on trial. It also covers caring for, feeding and supervising the revolving forces who, according to spokesman Navy Capt. John Filostrat, get monthly bonuses of $275 to $375 in hazardous duty and family separation pay. The deployment generally gets soldiers new gear and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary medals.
Without downsizing the troops, the price per prisoner goes up and up, Greenberg said, fueling a key talking point in the White House argument to close the prison as a waste of resources. “If you go to Congress with a $10 million price tag per detainee it looks so absurd that they finally have to shut it down.”
The prison compound these days would be a sleepy place but for the massive military force in there to maintain what is essentially a base inside the base. It has its its own chapel, cinema, weekly newsletter, mental health and dining facilities as well as a mini-mart and Internet cafe — all for the troops.
In 2015, the White House estimated annual prison costs at $455 million. Divide that figure by the 61 detainees there today and that works out to nearly $7.29 million per prisoner.
The prison has staff lawyers, guards, engineers, computer techs, analysts, doctors, nurses, medics, supply officers, photographers, escorts, personnel specialists, chaplains, commanders and censors — the majority of them pulled from civilian life for nine-month visits after specialized training in U.S. bases. They wrap up their time with what the military calls right-seat, left-seat training, weeks of doing side-by-side duties with their replacements.
Twice-weekly Periodic Review Board hearings are winding down. Obama ordered them set up in 2011 to give each uncharged prisoner a hearing every three years. The first round finishes on Sept. 8 when the prison’s youngest captive, Yemeni Hassan Bin Attash, born in 1985, goes before the board for the first time. Soon the guard force won’t be delivering a captive twice a week to a video teleconference site to address the parole board in Washington, D.C.
Contractors are building a new $12.4 million dining facility for the prison staff inside the Detention Center Zone that’s off-limits to other base residents. Also under construction: An $8.4 million health clinic to care for low-value detainees. Former CIA captives have their own medical facility. So the new clinic will care for at most 46 prisoners, 20 of whom are cleared for release.
The motor pool has four government vehicles for every staff member, from big vans that used to shuttle most staff to work to the military version of golf-carts, called “mules,” that enlisted soldiers now use to shuttle from their quarters to their offices.
Military judges have scheduled three different sets of pretrial hearings at the war court for September — each in a single-defendant case. The five alleged Sept. 11 plotters are due back at Camp Justice in October but trial won’t start before the next president takes office. Air Force engineers on temporary duty maintain a mostly empty tent city there.
What drives the number of personnel … is the number of facilities that we have to operate.
Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke, overall commander of prison operations
Meantime, the Pentagon continues to pour troops into this “really important” mission. In an interview with the Fort Bliss Bugle before leading his troops from Texas to Cuba, California National Guard Capt. Christopher Price said “everyone has put in so much effort in defeating all these terrorists and this is the last step, bringing them to justice.”
Joint Task Force Guantánamo, as it is called, has an authorized staff strength of 1,950 Pentagon workers, mostly U.S. Army soldiers, and a 10 percent to 20 percent turnover rate each month, according to Filostrat. Most are mobilized from National Guard or Reserve units.
So far, according to military spokesmen from the base to the Pentagon, nobody has reduced the flow of guards pulled from across the nation.
It would happen like this, according to Army Col. Lisa Garcia, spokeswoman for the Southern Command: Admiral Clarke decides he can downsize, and sends a recommendation to Southcom commander Adm. Kurt Tidd, who oversees prison operations. If Tidd agrees, he sends word to the Joint Staff in Washington “and, ultimately the appropriate service for official notification.”
That could stem the hunger-strike surge of Tidd’s predecessor, Kelly, who in the summer of 2013 added Navy medical staff to manage tube feedings that reached 46 on a single day.
In July, however, the doctor in charge of detainee health, Navy Capt. Richard Quattron, said there are many days when his staff don’t conduct tube-feedings at all. Captives choose to chug a can of Ensure rather than be shackled into a restraint chair and get it from a tube snaked up a nostril and into their stomach.
Quattrone said his 100-plus Joint Medical Group is keeping busy, however, caring for the revolving prison staff in their own trooper clinic rather than at the base hospital that treats everybody else.
How fast the Pentagon can stop the flow is uncertain.
The detention center spokesman said in a telephone interview that the military could theoretically send home National Guard or Reserve troops from training at Fort Bliss for the Guantánamo mission. Ninety percent of the prison’s forces are under mobilization orders, Filostrat said, and 80 percent of the forces come from the Army, which uses the term off-ramping to describe sending home reserve forces early.
But Garcia at Southcom suggested full-time troops, who represent a minority of the huge deployment, might get off-ramped first. “Reserve and National Guard units are notified well in advance of mobilization to avoid any hardship,” she said. “Since active duty units do not require mobilization, their notification does not require the same advance notice.” She declined to say how many days notice the full-time troops get.