The new Guantanamo Bay detention center commander, who was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijackers crashed a jetliner into the building, won't be meeting with his prisoners — who include the attack's confessed mastermind.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas said on Tuesday he's not compelled to follow the lead of some of his predecessors who chose to have personal contact with men held at the prison.
"As far as looking them in the eye or meeting with them, that's not part of my role," Thomas said in a telephone interview from the base.
Thomas, a second-generation Navy officer, raced through flames to rescue one man in the Pentagon and lost a friend in the attack. His singed uniform from that day is now part of the Smithsonian Institution's American history collection.
Detainees include terror suspects
But Thomas said his personal experience in the attack has no bearing on his new job, which he started May 27.
"This is a great team to be leading. I'm proud to be leading it. But beyond that, there's no significance to this assignment for me," Thomas said.
The U.S. began taking prisoners to Guantanamo in January 2002 and now holds about 270 men suspected of terrorism or links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. The detainees include Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged coconspirators who have been charged with direct involvement in the attacks.
In January, previous commander Navy Rear Adm. Mark Buzby told AP he made a point of going behind the razor wire each week and "putting eyes on every detainee."
Another former commander, Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, met with prisoners and even convened a short-lived prisoner advisory council in 2005 to address complaints about conditions.
Thomas has kept up one command tradition — submitting to feeding through a tube inserted in his nose, the same process imposed on hunger-striking detainees. The practice has been criticized as inhumane.
"It is neither harsh or uncomfortable," Thomas said. "I was able to have a conversation during the entire procedure."
Thomas' yearlong assignment could involve dramatic changes since both major presidential candidates say they want Guantanamo closed. He says he ignores any talk of closing the prison.
"We'll execute the mission professionally and safely for as long as this camp is open, and closing it or keeping it open is a policy decision made elsewhere," Thomas said.