GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – The military is toughening a new jailhouse for suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban militants to protect guards after a spate of attacks and evidence that detainees have organized themselves into groups to mount uprisings, officials said.
The hardening comes as U.N. human rights investigators are calling for closing the entire detention center on this remote U.S. base. But with the war against terror groups dragging on, commanders say they have no choice in dealing with men deemed enemy combatants.
Events in recent months have made Guantanamo officials extremely wary:
— Detainees lured guards into a cell in the prison's Camp 4 by staging a suicide attempt in May, then attacked with fan blades and broken pieces of fluorescent light fixtures, the military says. Defense attorneys say the clash was sparked when guards tried to search prisoners' Korans.
— On June 10, three detainees in Camp 1 committed suicide. Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the jail, described it as a coordinated protest action — "not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."
— Guards recently discovered detainees in Camp 1 were dismantling faucets on sinks, removing long, sharp springs and reinforcing them into stabbing weapons, Army Lt. Col. Mike Nicolucci said. Camp 1 has been emptied of detainees while new faucets are installed, with inaccessible springs.
From July 2005 through August, the military recorded 432 assaults by detainees using "cocktails" of bodily excretions thrown at guards, 227 physical assaults and 99 instances of inciting or participating in disturbances or riots.
"What we have come to assess is these detainees — these terrorists — are still fighting a battle," said Army Brig. Gen. Edward A. Leacock, deputy commander of the detention operation. "They're not on the battlefield but ... they're still continuing to fight to this day."
Leacock said hard-core Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees have established a hierarchy of "military guys, religious guys ... the muscle guys, and they all have a role inside the camps."
The goal is to coordinate attacks on guards or organize disturbances, Leacock said in an interview with journalists from The Associated Press and three other news organizations Wednesday.
"There are people in the camps — we have identified them — that continue to try to foment problems within the camp," Leacock said. "Our effort is trying to preclude them from developing the plans that will cause ... any kind of uprising."
Leacock did not identify the leaders but insisted extra security measures were called for, even before 14 top detainees, including alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were recently transferred to Guantanamo.
Human rights attorneys contend detainees are treated harshly, including enduring solitary confinement for months. The lawyers also say that among the roughly 460 Guantanamo detainees are men who were swept up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere who never intended to do the United States harm.
Underscoring the military's toughening stance, a jailhouse in the final stages of construction on a cactus-studded plateau overlooking the Caribbean is being "hardened" into a maximum-security facility. Camp 6 was to have opened in August as a medium-security lockup.
The modifications have pushed back the completion date of the $37.8 million jailhouse, which has a capacity for 220 inmates, to Sept. 30. It will take its first detainees in mid-October, Army Capt. Dan Byer said.
As a medium-security jail, inmates would have had common areas where they could talk and share meals. The eight common areas, with gleaming metal tables and stools, still exist, but will be off limits to detainees under maximum security.
"Anti-jump fencing" is being added to second floor tiers, and a high-tech control room will allow guards to monitor the facility while sitting at computers.
Shower doors have been specially made for the modification. Inmates will be escorted to showers, shut in and escorted back to their cells when they are finished washing. As a medium-security jail, inmates would have been able to walk unescorted across the common area to the showers.
Camp 6 underscores the prison's increasing permanence, standing in stark contrast to the cages that housed detainees when they began arriving in January 2002. Vines now entwine the cages at the abandoned Camp X-ray, standing in knee-deep weeds and grass.
The United States has determined that about 130 of the current detainees are eligible for release or transfer, but the timing will depend on negotiations with their home countries.
"I think what we have here is an orange. What we're doing is squeezing out the juice and what we're left with at the end of the day is pulp that will just stay here," said Navy Capt. Phil Waddingham, lead officer here for the Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants.
"We have dangerous men here who should not be allowed back to the battlefield," he said.
Last year, Guantanamo's former warden held talks with "the council," an ad hoc group composed of six detainees aimed at easing prison conditions and conflicts. One of the things they agreed on was having traffic cones placed in hallways during Muslim prayer time, so guards would know not to interrupt praying detainees.
The council has been disbanded amid suspicions it was coordinating resistance efforts. Defense attorneys say some council members have been in solitary confinement for months. Guantanamo officials refuse to discuss individual detainees, but say no one is denied all human contact.
Leacock said that while the prayer cones are still used, the experiment of allowing a detainee negotiating group is definitely over.
"The council of six is no longer in session," he said.