By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
Thursday, 19 August 2010
Barack Obama's pledge to shut down Guantanamo Bay will not be honoured until at least a year after the President's self-imposed deadline – and may not be completed in his first administration.
The man in charge of the seven prison camps at the US naval base in Cuba is yet to receive direct orders to begin the transfer of prisoners so he can close the detention facilities.
In his first media interview since taking up the post three months ago, Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson said that even if President Obama implemented his order today it would take him six months to complete the job, a year after the January 2010 deadline imposed by the President when he signed the executive order in 2009.
The stalled timetable reflects growing opposition from the US public, and Congress, to the transfer of prisoners to the US mainland. Plans to move the bulk of the 176 detainees to a specially built maximum security prison close to Chicago have run into fierce local and national opposition, while Congress has also blocked the allocation of more money to build new facilities.
Criminal trials for the Guantanamo detainees accused of crimes linked to the September 11 attacks have also ground to a halt over arguments about what process the suspects should face. There is also little international enthusiasm for a settlement involving the transfer of the bulk of the remaining detainees, from 30 different countries, to new locations around the world.
Admiral Harbeson, the 10th commander of the camps since they were opened in January 2002, told The Independent that as a "ball-park figure" it would take his Guard Force six months to close Guantanamo. Asked if he had received an instruction to implement President Obama's order, he replied: "No."
On the closure operation he added: "Any movement of the detainees that we do will mean there are a lot of folks who go with them to ensure safety and security – [that means] medical personnel, regular security and interpreters. That's the tail...."
He continued: "Once you do that, [and] the detainees are safely transported to different locations, then you come back to the infrastructure and the security aspect and the personnel who are here, turning off the lights, turning off the power..."
The camps themselves are protected by a court order which means that after Guantanamo is closed the infrastructure must be maintained as evidence in ongoing legal action being brought by detainees against the US government.
Admiral Harbeson, who took up his year-long post in June, also admitted that the CIA has dramatically scaled down its interrogation operations at Guantanamo Bay and now only interviews al-Qa'ida and Taliban suspects who volunteer to speak to its agents.
The US intelligence-gathering operation is now restricted to monitoring the mail sent in and out of the camps, but the Admiral insists there is still intelligence to be gleaned from the detainees. "These individuals were picked up on the battlefield and belong to various organisations, so they still communicate through mail and phone calls," he says.
Despite this, living conditions in the camps have greatly improved since the detainees were held in the cages of Camp X-Ray in the early months of 2002, Admiral Harbeson added.
The international focus on Guantanamo remains fixed on President Obama's promise to close the camps. In October last year Admiral Harbeson's predecessor, Admiral Tom Copeman, said that he could close down Guantanamo by January this year. He added that a "substantial number" of the then 223 detainees were "still hoping" they would be repatriated to their respective home countries.
But his replacement says the closure of the base is not his chief concern and that he doesn't necessarily want to be remembered as the man who closed Guantanamo.
While politicians on Capitol Hill worry about how to put the Guantanamo genie back in the bottle, Admiral Harbeson said his focus is the detainees, the majority of whom have been held for eight years without charge or trial. "My mission is to make sure that those individuals are treated humanely, [that we are] legal and transparent in everything we do and that they are held in common with article three of the US Constitution [which governs the judiciary]."