By Matt Spetalnick
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, April 21 – Observed from behind a one-way mirror and heavy chain-link fence, a handful of bearded detainees in baggy t-shirts mill around inside a communal cellblock at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, vastly outnumbered by U.S. troops guarding them.
This is the shrinking world of America’s notorious offshore prison, a scene that underscores how U.S. President Barack Obama is running out of time – and options – to meet his pledge to close the compound before he leaves office in January.
Obama has whittled down the number of prisoners to 80, the lowest since shortly after his predecessor George W. Bush opened the facility to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But the president faces political and legal obstacles that may prove insurmountable in his final push to empty the detention center at the U.S. naval station in Cuba, according to some U.S. officials in Washington.
Still, there were growing signs during a carefully scripted media tour this week that operations are beginning to wind down at the prison, where many cells now stand empty.
As inmate numbers dwindle – the latest departures being nine Yemenis sent to Saudi Arabia last weekend – participation also has ebbed in what was once a widespread hunger strike.
Fewer than five inmates are being force-fed, the chief medical officer told reporters as he displayed a “restraint chair” of the type where prisoners are strapped down and nasal tubes inserted twice daily.
But the 1,100-strong force of military personnel assigned to secure Guantanamo’s far-flung lockups, ranging from communal compounds for well-behaved prisoners to solitary confinement for those considered most dangerous, has remained largely unchanged. That works out to about 14 guards for each current inmate.
Work inside the razor wire is labor-intensive. Squads of guards in protective visors swarmed through an eerily darkened corridor one lunch time, preparing to deliver meals in Camp Six, home to the most cooperative prisoners.
Unaware of being watched and recorded through the sound-proof glass, detainees went about their routines. One waved over a guard and complained about not having enough pens for his artwork, while another sat at a steel table doing paperwork.
In Washington, Republican lawmakers are readying for a legal battle if Obama tries to move prisoners to U.S. soil.
Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo, announced two months ago, hinges on bringing possibly dozens of remaining prisoners deemed too dangerous to release to maximum-security prisons in the United States. But that would defy a congressional ban on such transfers.
FEWER DETAINEE DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS
Administration officials have not ruled out that Obama might seek to bypass Congress and resort to executive action to close the prison but say privately he probably won’t make a decision until after the November presidential election. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and his party rivals vow to keep the jail open if they win the White House.
At its peak, Guantanamo housed nearly 800 prisoners, becoming a symbol of the excesses of the “war on terror” and synonymous with accusations of torture. Obama, whose promise to shutter the prison dates back to the 2008 campaign, has called it a recruitment tool for terrorists.
Nowadays, camp officials credit improved “compliance” by prisoners to a sense that release is getting closer. Most have been held for more than a decade without charge or trial.
Only two detainees are listed for misconduct, which can entail anything from physically assaulting guards to “splashing them with bodily fluids,” said Army Colonel David Heath, commander of the Guantanamo guard force.
Hunger strikers, who numbered more than a hundred at the peak of their protest in 2013, are now just a handful and there is no longer any need for extraction teams to pull them from their cells for “enteral feeding” sessions, according to Navy Captain Rich Quattrone, head of the camp’s medical facilities.
He insisted the process is “safe and humane.”
But Omar Farah, attorney for Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni hunger striker who lost half his body weight and was among the group sent to Saudi Arabia, said force-feeding was “utterly humiliating”.
Guantanamo officials remain mindful of other potential sources of trouble, especially given Islamic religious sensitivities.
For instance, when a reporter entered a model cell meant to display living conditions and began inspecting a bookshelf, camp officials rushed over and told her not to touch a copy of the Koran. Her cameraman was ordered to delete the scene.
At the detainee library, where Harry Potter books are the most popular items, officials screen out anything deemed to promote jihadist themes or containing graphic violence or nudity.
Inmates sometimes go a step further. A woman’s photo on the cover of an Arabic-language National Geographic was scribbled over by a detainee apparently offended by her uncovered face.