GUANTANAMO, BAY NAVAL BASE CUBA – A length of razor wire dangles onto a chain-link fence, clinking gently in the warm breeze. Long, thick grass smothers what once was a gravel prison yard. Animal droppings are everywhere.
Over the past 14 years, nature has won control of Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray, the notorious holding center briefly home to nearly 300 detainees pulled from the battlefield after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Gone are the inmates and their orange jumpsuits. Their tiny, open-air cages are now knotted with weeds and the wooden guard towers surrounding the facility look like they’re about to collapse.
But just a short drive away, on the other side of a shrub-covered hill, a different story is playing out.
Down a closely guarded access road, where an “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” sign greets visitors, the extensive prison complex that succeeded Camp X-Ray remains home to dozens of terrorist suspects.
Despite President Barack Obama’s repeated efforts to close it since taking office in 2009, this facility is staying open — at least for now.
Last month, Obama handed Congress a Pentagon proposal to shut the prisonthat he has called a stain on America’s conscience that catalyzes jihadi anger against the United States.
But Republican foes immediately dismissed the plan, primarily because it seeks to bring high-risk detainees from this remote naval base in southeastern Cuba to the United States — even though such a move is illegal under current U.S. law.
Further dampening expectations, Republicans last week seized on a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that found a recent increase in ex-detainees suspected of rejoining the extremist fight against America and its allies.
Of the 676 men released under Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, 118 are suspected of re-engaging, the report found, noting that further recidivism was likely among those currently slated for release.
“We assess that some detainees currently at GTMO (Guantanamo) will seek to re-engage in terrorist or insurgent activities after they are transferred,” the report states.
Today, 91 inmates remain. Thirty-five are approved for transfer to another country, but the process of putting security guarantees in place is painstakingly slow.
The rest face ongoing — and indefinite — detention.
AFP got a tour of Guantanamo Bay last week during a visit by Gen. Joe Dunford, the U.S. military’s top officer.
Dunford visited the two main prison camps, where he saw several detainees and met the troops who guard them. He said he was pleased with how the facility is being run.
“The basic operation of Gitmo, I am proud of it,” he said, using the naval base’s nickname.
“I am proud of the young men and women who are actually doing really hard work every day.”
The four-star general chose not to weigh in on the political debate swirling around the prison, but said he was satisfied inmates are well cared for, despite numerous claims to the contrary from former prisoners and rights groups.
“When it comes to American values demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, we don’t have to really hide what’s going on in Gitmo from anybody,” he said.
Realistically, Obama has scant chance of closing Guantanamo during his remaining 10 months in office. He is considering an executive order to shut it, but such action would prove deeply controversial.
And even if he were to succeed, a future U.S. president could quickly reopen it.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump intends to fill Guantanamo with “bad dudes,” and fellow conservatives, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, want to send Islamic State captives there.
Navy Capt. Christopher Scholl, a military spokesman, said inmates follow Guantanamo news closely; they have access to some 300 channels, including Arabic-language broadcasters.
“It was very calm,” Scholl said of the day Obama announced his closure plan.
“There was more curiosity of what’s going to happen next, to see if they’re going to go to the States.”
Most inmates currently are housed in two jails known as Camp 5, which opened in 2004, and Camp 6, which opened in 2006 at a cost of $37 million.
Well-behaved detainees live in Camp 6 and have access to communal areas. The noncompliant inmates are kept at Camp 5, which has equipment to protect guards from “splashing” — the grim practice of hurling bodily fluids and excrement at guards.
The riskiest detainees, including the five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, are incarcerated at another, secret prison camp elsewhere on the base.
Scholl said Obama’s plans have had no impact on the prison’s day-to-day workings. A force of about 2,000 guards and staff keep the facility running — more than 20 workers per inmate.
“It’s business as usual right now,” Scholl said. “Operationally, there are no changes.”