In news from Guantánamo, the US military announced yesterday that it had shut Camp 7, the secretive prison block where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other so-called “high-value detainees” have been held since their arrival at Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, and had moved the prisoners to Camp 5.
Modeled on a maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, Camp 5, which cost $17.5 million, opened in 2004, and its solid-walled, isolated cells were used to hold prisoners regarded as non-compliant. As the prison’s population shrank, however, it was closed — in September 2016 — and its remaining prisoners transferred to Camp 6, which opened in 2006, and includes a communal area.
Camp 7, meanwhile, which cost $17 million, was also built in 2004. Two storeys tall, it was modeled on a maximum-security prison in Bunker Hill, Indiana, and, as Carol Rosenberg explained in the New York Times yesterday, had “a modest detainee health clinic and a psychiatric ward with a padded cell, but none of the hospice or end-of-life care capacity once envisioned by Pentagon planners.”
Rosenberg added that it was “designed to keep prisoners confined to their cells except when guards move[d] an individual to showers, outdoor cages that serve[d] as recreation yards or another cell where a single captive [could] sit in a recliner, one ankle shackled to a bolt on the floor, and watch television.”
As she also explained, “By segregating the prisoners, under the watch of a special guard unit called Task Force Platinum, the intelligence agencies could strictly monitor and control their communications and prevent them from divulging what had happened to them. Defense lawyers who were eventually granted access to the men were bound by security clearances to keep their conversations classified, including in court filings that accused government agents of state-sponsored torture.”
She also explained that “Camp 7 was long one of Guantánamo’s most clandestine sites. The Pentagon refused to disclose its cost, which contractor built it and when. Reporters were not permitted to see it, lawyers were required to obtain a court order to visit and its location was considered classified, although sources pointed to it on a satellite map of the base.”
Conditions at Camp 7 were robustly criticized in a letter in February 2012, to William K. Lietzau, the senior official responsible for detainee policy at the Pentagon, which was written by lawyers for six of the “high-value detainees” — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ammar al-Baluchi, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Walid bin Attash (all accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks), and Abu Faraj al-Libi, seized in Pakistan in May 2005, who has not been charged with a crime.
In the New York Times, Charlie Savage noted that the letter contended that “conditions at Camp 7 fall short of the minimum guarantees of humane treatment under the Geneva Conventions”, adding that the lawyers “asked for the letter to be treated as a report of a possible ‘violation of the law of war,’” which would require its allegation to be investigated.
Despite this, Camp 7 continued to be used for the “high-value detainees,” and it was not until Donald Trump’s presidency that a “plan to consolidate the prisoners was devised,’ because of Camp 7’s continuing structural failures. As Rosenberg described it, “Raw sewage sloshed through the tiers, the power sometimes went out and some cell doors would not close at the site. The situation worsened over the summer amid the coronavirus pandemic because it was difficult to bring in contractors and spare parts.”
The military described the move from Camp 7 to Camp 5 as, in Rosenberg’s words, “a consolidation of detention operations that could cut costs and reduce the troop presence” at Guantánamo, and Maj. Gregory J. McElwain, a spokesman for US Southern Command, which oversees the prison, called it a “fiscally responsible decision” whose planning “involved all relevant organizations to include the intelligence community.”
Even James Connell, one of the defense lawyers for Ammar al-Baluchi, who is normally — and completely understandably — critical of the conditions in which his client is held, said that the move “sounds like a solution to the crumbling Camp 7.”
Rosenberg proceeded to explain that “Camp 7 functioned under a 2006 memorandum of agreement between Donald H. Rumsfeld and Michael V. Hayden, the defense secretary and the CIA director at the time,” although she added that it “was not immediately known on Sunday whether a new agreement was reached or the old one was dissolved.”
What is also not known is what conditions the “high-value detainees” will be held in in Camp 5. The former “black site” prisoners were kept in isolation in their early years in Camp 7. As Rosenberg explained, “Each was allowed to speak with only one other prisoner through a tarp during recreation time, in conversations that were recorded for intelligence purposes.”
She added that their lawyers “described the conditions as mind-numbing until recent years, when the commanders permitted the prisoners to eat and pray together under strict surveillance,” and also allowed them access to “a cell where they could prepare food.”
As Rosenberg also explained, “It is unknown whether the military will emulate that communal lifestyle in the prisoners’ new surroundings,” but it is fundamentally necessary for them to do so, because the men moved to Camp 5 are either caught up in seemingly interminable pre-trial hearings in their military commission trials (because of the CIA’s obsession with trying to keep their torture secret), or are held indefinitely without charge or trial as “forever prisoners.”
And while it is obviously appropriate for Camp 7 to have been closed, and for the men to have been moved, it does nothing to address the fundamental injustice of either prosecuting them in a broken trial system that is incapable of delivering justice, as is the case with ten of them (the 9/11 five, mentioned above, plus Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, and Hambali and two alleged accomplices), or of continuing to hold them indefinitely without charge or trial, as is the case with six others (the stateless Palestinian Abu Zubaydah, for whom the torture program was developed, in the mistaken belief that he was a senior member of al-Qaeda, Abu Faraj al-Libi, mentioned above, as well as a Somalian, a Kenyan and two Afghans).
One other man, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is imprisoned alone after he was given a life sentence after a military commission trial in October 2008, in which he refused to mount a defence, while another, Majid Khan, agreed to a plea deal in 2012, but is still waiting for confirmation of when, as a result, his imprisonment will come to an end.
The 22 other prisoners, held in Camp 6, are “low-value detainees.” Six of them have been approved for release by high-level government review processes, but are still held, while the 16 others are also “forever prisoners,” held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Moving the “high-value detainees” solves the immediate problem of the broken prison block in which they were living, but it does nothing to solve the bigger problem of the broken prison itself. In the review of the prison’s future that Biden administration officials have promised, with the suggestion that the prison’s closure is Biden’s aim, the six men cleared for release need to be freed, and the administration needs to accept that it cannot continue holding indefinitely men it has no intention of putting on trial, and must charge or release the 22 “forever prisoners,” including the six who are also so-called “high-value detainees.”