GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, CUBA (Reuters) - The U.S. failure to shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo has Captain John Nettleton in a predicament.
As commander of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in eastern Cuba, he is in charge of making sure the prisoners and the troops and contractors who work at the camp have proper facilities. The problem is that he has no idea how long they will be staying.
“I haven’t gotten any guidance on it whatsoever, so everything I’m doing right now is kind of just speculating on what’s going on,” Nettleton said in a weekend interview with Reuters. “From a resourcing standpoint, it’s kind of frustrating to not know if they’re going to be permanent residents or not.”
The prison camp holds 166 men captured in counterterrorism operations after the September 11, 2001, attacks and costs $114 million a year to operate.
It is run by a military joint task force that is considered a tenant on the Navy base, which the United States opened in 1903 as a coaling station.
Many of the buildings that house and feed the 1,800-member task force are structures built to last five years and show signs of wear after standing for a decade in the salt air and broiling tropical sun.
Nettleton wants to replace the Seaside Galley, a Quonset-hut-like structure that serves as a cafeteria for the guards, interpreters, and other government employees and contractors working at the camp.
“We have to build a new galley but are we going to build it as a permanent galley or are we going to replace it with another temporary thing?” said Nettleton, a Navy pilot who has been the base commander since June 2012.
He would like to build permanent barracks for the guards, who are strewn in housing all over the base, many in beige metal trailers that look from the outside like self-storage lockers.
“There’s a lot of projects we’d like to do that involve making life better for the soldiers and sailors that are over there,” Nettleton said. But without knowing when the mission will end, “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask for permanent buildings if they’re going to be gone.”
“When does it quit being a temporary place?” he asked. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
The message from Washington has been mixed. On taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the detention operation shut down within a year.
Many Americans balked because of security concerns and Congress passed laws making it harder to transfer prisoners out, even though about half of them have been cleared for release.
Obama signed a defense budget bill extending those restrictions last month, despite insisting Congress had no authority to exert “unwarranted interference” in decisions traditionally made by military commanders and national security professionals.
Obama said he remained committed to shutting down the detention camp that “weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and strengthening our enemies.”
But last week, his administration closed the State Department office charged with resettling Guantanamo detainees and said the diplomat who led it would not be replaced.
Comedian Stephen Colbert called that a signal that it was time for America to embrace the Guantanamo prison as a “terrorist retirement community” and suggested renaming it “Jihadi Meadows.”
Faced with opposition from New Yorkers, the Obama administration also backed down on plans to hold a federal court trial in New York for five captives accused of plotting the September 11 attacks.
Pretrial hearings in that case began in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal in May 2012 and will resume on February 12. But it is anyone’s guess when the complex trial will start.
One other case is also in pretrial hearings, that of a prisoner charged with orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000, an attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
The slow pace of the trials suggests the prison camp will stay open for the next few years, Nettleton said. The defendants in both cases could face execution after lengthy appeals or be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The latter raises the prospect that Guantanamo could become America’s version of Spandau Prison, the internationally run facility in Berlin that held Nazi war criminals until the last one died in 1986.
Only three of the current detainees have been convicted of crimes, and one of those had his conviction overturned on appeal last month.
In addition to the handful facing trial and those cleared for release, there are about 46 prisoners that the United States considers dangerous enough to detain forever. But the government says it cannot prosecute them because it cannot link them to specific attacks.
Without a resolution of their fate, the prison buildings may someday have to be retrofitted for a geriatric population. The oldest detainee is already 65.
“We’re building everything like they’re going to go away next year or the year after and every year you say the same thing: ‘OK, well maybe they’ll be leaving next year,’” Nettleton said.
“I think that’s frustrating for everybody in the United States government. That’s not just a J.R. Nettleton problem. From the president on down, it’s just such a hard problem right now for everybody.”
Editing by Xavier Briand