Despite President Obama's vow to shut down Guantanamo Bay, the nation's most expensive prison is undergoing some costly new updates that would allow the facility to remain open for years. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, targeted for closure by Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency, is instead quietly undergoing millions of dollars of upgrades that could allow it to remain open for years as a prison for suspected terrorists, NBC News has learned.
Among the recent improvements to the facility commonly known as “Gitmo”: a heavily guarded soccer field for detainees known as “Super Rec,” which cost nearly $750,000 and opened this week; cable television in a communal living quarters and “enriching your life” classes for detainees, which include instruction on learning to paint, writing a resume -- even handling personal finances.
“Well, that's one class, but it’s not a popular (one),” Army Col. Donnie Thomas, commander of the military guards at camp, said with a laugh. “But it’s a class. It’s just to keep these guys busy.”
Other improvements are more practical, such as a new headquarters for the guards and a new hospital, which is still in the planning stages.
Navy Adm. David B. “Woody” Woods, commander of the Guantanamo facility, told NBC News that the improvements have “made it safer for the detainees, safer for the guard force,” and have not adversely impacted security at the facility.
“We treat them all as a threat only because if you don't then you're gonna get surprised, and that's not our business,” he said.
Many of the improvements have been made at the most modern facility in the detention center, known as Camp VI, a communal living compound that houses about 80 percent of the 169 detainees currently held at Gitmo. There, detainees who are deemed to be compliant with the rules and therefore eligible for more privileges are able to watch 21 Cable TV channels, DVD movies, read newspapers and borrow books from a library.
The detention center, located within the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, was established in 2002 by President George W. Bush to hold detainees from the war in Afghanistan and later Iraq. The base in Cuba was selected as part of a Bush administration strategy to prevent judicial review of the legal status of the prisoners, who were initially denied lawyers.
Obama made its closure a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, arguing that U.S. courts were capable of handling the cases. After taking office, he signed an executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, directing that Gitmo be shut down within a year. The order also called for an immediate case-by case review of detainees at the facility with an eye toward either repatriating them or bringing them to trial in U.S. civilian courts.
But the president’s efforts to shutter the camp were blocked by Congress out of concerns that transferring the detainees to U.S. jails would pose a security risk and invite escape attempts or terrorist attacks on the facilities.
A little more than two years after Obama’s first executive order, on March 7, 2011, he signed another executive order making a number of policy changes regarding Gitmo, including a reversal of his order seeking to bring detainees to trial in civilian courts. Instead, he said, suspects would face military tribunals that would decide their guilt or innocence.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and four other Guantanamo detainees were the first to go before a military tribunal last month, when they were formally charged with crimes that include murder and terrorism. They face the death penalty if convicted for their roles in the attacks that claimed 2,976 lives in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa.
But for the remainder of the detainees – including some who are eligible for release but have no country willing to take them – there is little prospect of leaving Gitmo anytime soon.
And that means U.S. taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for their presence in a U.S. prison that costs $140 million a year to operate – or some $800,000 per detainee.
Woods, the commander of the Guantanamo detention center, said he doesn’t anticipate the closure of the facility any time soon.
“As far as being able to close down the operation, I could do that … in a couple of months, the buildings and the people,” he said. “We have removed these belligerents from the battlefield and our job is to detain them, and we do that very well.”
Michael Isikoff is NBC's national investigative correspondent; Mike Brunker of msnbc.com contributed to this report.