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Guantanamo Prepares for Renovations

Times Staff Writer

Military officials at the sprawling U.S. prison complex here expect the number of detainees to shrink by as much as half in the next few months as hundreds are reevaluated and are likely to be released.

Despite the likelihood of falling numbers, plans are moving ahead for construction and a permanent security force to replace the reservists serving as jailers at the U.S. naval base. Funds from the antiterrorism budget are being sought for a 200-bed, $25-million maximum-security prison, a state-of-the-art perimeter wall that would cut the need for military police reservists and a $1.7-million psychiatric ward for detainees.

The dual moves toward streamlining and permanence come three years after the first shackled, blindfolded men detained in Afghanistan were flown here Jan. 11, 2002, on suspicion that they supported the masterminds of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The makeshift prison that once housed suspected terrorist kingpins -- a purported Al Qaeda financier as well as the man said to have designed the exploding footwear used by shoe bomber Richard C. Reid -- has become a lightning rod for the debate over Bush administration terrorism and detention policies.

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Military commission trials have been put on hold as defense lawyers swarm federal courts to challenge the legal processes devised by the Pentagon to charge and try suspects. And an international human rights debate is underway over President Bush’s decision that the Geneva Convention does not apply to prisoners here.

Senior military and intelligence officials concede that many of the 558 “enemy combatants” being held here probably will be released in coming months to allow interrogators to focus on those thought to possess relevant information about the global terror network.

“The majority of individuals here today are not of intelligence value to me,” said Steve Rodriguez, the civilian head of intelligence at the naval base. Even with unlimited resources to pursue interrogations, Rodriguez said, he wouldn’t advocate keeping them jailed.

“It’s to our advantage to have people released or transferred,” he said, because it sends a message to the noncompliant when they see a fellow detainee who was more cooperative walk out.

Rodriguez, as well as other officials who spoke on condition they not be identified, noted that being deemed of little intelligence value doesn’t necessarily translate into freedom.

“It’s not only what intelligence value an individual possesses but what threat he poses,” Rodriguez said. For instance, he asked, would the military want to release a suspected body guard for Osama bin Laden who then might return to the fight against America?

Rodriguez insisted officials still are gathering important information from the Guantanamo detainees. He said interrogators had learned a few weeks ago of previously unknown active Al Qaeda cells in a third country. He would not discuss their location or status.

Military legal and intelligence officials recently started a second tier of pretrial sessions after the combatant status review tribunals that had brought all but about 15 of the detainees before three-judge panels to determine whether they had been properly classified as enemy combatants.

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In only two of those tribunals have the judges ordered detainees released. Those two, along with an undisclosed number set for transfer to their home countries, remain at a pre-release facility here called Camp Iguana.

“There will be more people released from this second process,” Cmdr. Robert Mulac, a spokesman for the multi-service mission here, said of the administrative review boards that had begun weighing the merits of each detainee’s incarceration. “Some are deemed to have been enemy combatants, but we’ve had to ask, ‘Does this person pose a risk to the United States or its allies?’ ”

Those already identified as leaders or likely to possess significant intelligence about the global terror network are jailed at Camp 5, the only “hard facility” on the base, a concrete building designed after a prison in Indiana where a former detention commander worked in civilian life.

Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood -- commander of the joint task force serving as jailers, police and prosecutors -- predicts that the 100-person capacity Camp 5 and the maximum-security Camp 6, planned to house about 200 others, eventually will be sufficient to contain the detainees that the United States decides to keep in custody.

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Of the planned improvements to the detention facilities, Hood said, he considers the psychiatric ward to be the first priority. The Naval Hospital annex is holding about a dozen detainees diagnosed as chronic psychotics, hospital commander Capt. Steve Edmondson said.

At least 34 suicide attempts have been thwarted, as was a massive “self-harm action” in August 2003 when dozens of detainees tried to hang themselves with bedding or clothing. One suicide attempt resulted in permanent brain damage, but none of the other incidents led to serious injury, Edmondson said.

After the psychiatric ward, Hood said, Guantanamo needs the new prison, then a perimeter wall equipped with movement sensors that would eliminate the need for 300 reservists currently patrolling outside.

“It would pay for itself within the first year or two,” said Hood, citing estimates of about $4 million for the improved containment.

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About 200 soldiers from the newly constituted 525th Military Police Battalion specializing in correction have arrived here and, by mid-February, will take over guard duty from the reservists, battalion commander Lt. Col. Kevin Burk said. An additional 124 will be on site by late October, by which time senior officers expect the detainee population to be have been reduced enough to eliminate the need for large numbers of reservists.

The permanent MP battalion, Camp 6, the wall and the psychiatric ward all suggest that the military expects to see the Guantanamo prison operation continue for years. Officials here point out that recent U.S. court rulings challenging military jurisdiction in terrorism trials and expanding detainees’ legal rights have nothing to do with the conditions of detention.

“Where this will go four or five years down the road, I don’t know,” Hood said.

Four of the Guantanamo Bay detainees have been charged with aiding terrorism. Their trials have been suspended pending appeal of a U.S. district court ruling that the military procedures fail to meet American standards of justice. The Supreme Court also has ruled that detainees cannot be denied legal rights recognized in U.S. courts just because they are being held on foreign territory.

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