WASHINGTON – Detaining prisoners of the U.S. war on terrorism is only the latest challenge for the few good men and women at Guantanamo Bay.
The oldest U.S. overseas outpost has repelled enemies and welcomed refugees since 1898, when U.S. Marines fighting the Spanish-American War established camp at the natural harbor on Cuba's southeast coast.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday it could take weeks to prepare the Navy base to hold the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, and described it as the "least worst place" for the prison.
He didn't elaborate, but base spokesman Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans noted that Guantanamo already has detention facilities for about 100 people, dating from the mid-1990s, when it housed thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees. U.S. forces currently hold 45 detainees.
Besides its impressive security, the base would offer advantages should it ever host the type of military tribunal President Bush signed into order on Nov. 13, although Rumsfeld says there are no plans for it to do so at the moment.
The base is close enough to the United States – two-hour flights leave regularly for Guantanamo from Jacksonville, Fla. – to ferry legal teams in and out quickly, and yet its offshore status makes any verdict virtually immune from appeal. A landmark 1950 Supreme Court decision established, in unusually direct language, that nonresident enemy aliens have "no access to our courts in wartime."
Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have said they prefer military tribunals because they better protect U.S. secrets, and because they believe enemy aliens are not entitled to constitutional guarantees.
"The Bush administration appears to intentionally be following a pattern of making sure there is no judicial review," said Scott Silliman, a former Air Force lawyer and Duke University law professor who recently expressed his concerns about the tribunals in testimony to the Senate.
Most of the time, life for the 2,700 people on the 45-square-mile base is bucolic. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a senior Naval officer described the base in a memo as "a community with overtones of suburbia."
Not much has changed: Three quarters of the residents are civilians – family to the sailors and Marines posted there, and maintenance staff imported from Jamaica and the Philippines.
This Christmas, residents – whose affectionate term for the base is "Gitmo" – organized a boat parade and a tour of some of the homes on base. They enjoy a view from John Paul Jones Hill that takes in the bay and the surrounding mountains.
Kids attend the airy W.T. Sampson school, run recycling drives and take tae kwan do. There's yoga and fishing expeditions for the adults.
The latest issue of the Guantanamo Bay Gazette frets about a couple of "invasions" of the decidedly unarmed kind: "Weight Control During the Holidays" is one headline; "Screwworm: a Threat to You and your Pets" is another.
Such determination to create a home away from the American hearth masks the fortress that would keep the detainees secure.
The base does not have any entrances from the main island, frustrating any attacks or attempts to help prisoners escape – and hampering protesters and journalists.
It is secure, in part, because of obstacles Cuban leader Fidel Castro ordered placed to stop his people from seeking refuge there – among them a ring of cactus plants. The Cuban military controls an area of about 20 miles on the Cuban side around the base, and prohibits all access.
U.S. forces stand ready to assume high alert, and have done so during two revolutions on the tumultuous island, in 1906 and 1959, as well as during the missile crisis in 1962, and after Castro's order to cut off the base's water in 1964.
The "water crisis" led to the building of a desalination plant, and now the base is fully self-sufficient. Recently declassified Pentagon documents suggest that the base has stored nuclear weapons – probably submarine-seeking depth bombs – since the 1962 crisis.
President Theodore Roosevelt leased the land from Cuba in 1903, and his nephew Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the base expanded in 1939. FDR anticipated the need for submarine patrols should the United States enter the European war, which it did two years later.
Since then, it has served as a refueling and maintenance port for U.S ships, and has provided support to U.S. anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.
In the mid-1990s it assumed a new role: safe harbor for the thousands of Cubans and Haitians seeking refuge on U.S. soil. Since then "migrant surge ops" have become one of the base's declared missions.