In a setback to President Donald Trump’s promise to make Guantánamo a permanent detention center, Congress has refused to pay for construction of a new $69 million prison for the alleged 9/11 plotters and other former CIA captives.
Commanders at the prison twice in recent weeks campaigned for the new building in sessions with visiting U.S. journalists. They argued Guantánamo’s Top Secret Camp 7 prison — which reporters have never been allowed to see — is structurally sound but will become inadequate for the hospice needs of long-term war prisoners who will ultimately need geriatric care..
The White House notified the Senate this week of its displeasure that the Senate’s 2019 National Defense Authorization Act omitted the funds for the new prison at Guantánamo, warning that the current facility has structural and system problems “that, if unaddressed, could in the future pose life and safety risks to our guard forces and the detainees being held there.”
It added: “The President has ordered continued detention operations at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay.”
The protest — illustrating an inherent conflict between the GOP president and a GOP-led Congress — was among 46 objections issued by the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday to the massive defense policy bill adopted by the Senate. The House had already excluded a new high-value prison for Guantánamo from its version of the bill.
On Capitol Hill, two staffers contacted by McClatchy emphasized the refusal to fund the new prison does not reflect a dispute with Trump over the future of Guantánamo. The prison today has 40 inmates and Trump has ordered his administration to be prepared to receive more detainees, the first since 2008.
Rather, the staffers said, the Senate and House armed services committees independently concluded that taxpayer funds must go to restoring basic Department of Defense needs that went unfunded during years of Obama administration budget cuts.
“We’ve got bases across the country and across the world that have serious needs — everything from insufficient housing for troops to rehabilitation of runways to construction of hospitals to the basic infrastructure that controls storm water runoff,” said a Republican aide on the House Armed Services Committee who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This is not a disagreement over detention policy,” the aide added. “We agree with them that this is likely to be a mission that we’re going to have to continue to address in one way or the other. We just believe at the moment that there are other priorities for spending military construction funds, higher priorities.”
The White House characterization of the Camp 7 facility as failing echoed remarks made in 2014 by Marine Gen. John Kelly, now Trump’s chief of staff. As head of U.S. Southern Command he had oversight of Guantánamo prison and unsuccessfully lobbied both the Obama administration and Congress to build a new facility.
But on June 5, the Army colonel in command of Guantánamo’s guard force emphasized that Camp 7 was structurally sound. He described the proposal to build a new maximum-security prison for former CIA captives — called Camp 8 — as prudent planning because the prison leadership has been told to prepare for 25-35 more years of detention.
“So as not to get the wrong impression, the detainees we have that are in Camp 7 are not at risk,” Col. Steve Gabavics said. “Everything’s fine within there. It’s the long term, looking down the road at how long this facility is designed to last. We know that it’s going to outrun its ability to maintain detainees for an extended period of time. So we look at the building of Camp 8.”
Camp 7 is a bit of a mystery. The public can’t know how much the Bush administration spent to build it, or when, and lawyers who have inspected it are only allowed to describe it superficially because the site is Top Secret. The prison commander, Rear Adm. John Ring, would only say in a June 5 interview that the military took possession of the facility in 2006.
Tuesday’s White House statement added that the facility holding alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other former CIA prisoners in their 40s and 50s “does not meet the requirements of the aging detainee population.” Nearly all of Camp 7’s prisoners were transferred to U.S. military custody in 2006 from three and four years in the spy agency’s Black Sites. Six of them, including Mohammed, are facing death-penalty trials by military commission.
In his most recent remarks to reporters, on June 19, Ring said the current high-value prison has “some aging issues,” but emphasized the need for a new prison with wheelchair accessible cells, some wide enough to hold a hospital bed, to make the military operation more efficient.
A new prison would have “a pretty robust” medical facility on site, a space for lawyers to meet with the inmates as well as a site for the Red Cross to talk to prisoners, Ring told reporters from the Voice of America, the online Intercept publication and a Danish radio station.
“Every time we have to move someone it’s a pain for the detainee,” he said, according to a transcript of the briefing. “They don’t like the search procedures, and it’s a pain for the soldiers that have to search them. This new facility is envisioned to make our operations a lot more streamlined for one, and also to account for the aging population.”
Only the House subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs included the $69 million in its proposed budget, meaning the House side has one more chance to persuade Senate appropriators to fund the new prison when lawmakers meet to reconcile the two versions of the bill. But the House aide said without the authorization, it would be “too high risk” to try to begin construction.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, who opposed the funding, called the idea of a new high value prison “a colossal waste of resources, especially when balanced against the needs of our military service members. Placing the needs and well-being of 40 detainees at Guantánamo Bay above the needs of the service members who serve our country does not reflect our nation’s priorities.”
It’s not that Congress is turning its back on the outpost in southeast Cuba, where the Navy is opening a new $12 million hurricane-proof dining room and kitchen for prison staff. It has approved more than $375 million in ongoing or future construction on base.
Congress’ 2019 Defense policy bill that declined to fund the new high-value prison includes $85 million for a solid waste management site to serve the entire base where more than 5,500 troops, families and contractors live as well as $9 million for a new working dog treatment facility at Guantánamo.