The Pentagon is considering plans for a $150 million overhaul of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- including building a new dining hall, hospital and barracks for the guards -- as part of an ambitious project recommended by the top general in charge of its operations, officials tell NBC News.
The proposed spending spree comes amid mounting signs of unrest among Guantanamo detainees that lawyers say is threatening their lives. U.S. military officials confirmed Wednesday that the number of hunger strikers at Guantanamo has more than tripled in the last two weeks -- from 7 to 25 -- and that eight of them are being force fed through tubes. Defense lawyers said in a letter to Congress this week they have gotten reports that “over two dozen men have lost consciousness.”
U.S. military officials denied any lives were in danger but acknowledged that resistance and frustration among the detainees is growing, a development that a senior general said is because they are “devastated” that President Barack Obama’s pledge to shut down the facility has not been fulfilled.
“They had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed,” said Gen. John Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, when asked about the hunger strikes during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. “They were devastated, apparently… when the president backed off -- at least their perception -- of closing the facility.
“He said nothing about it in his inauguration speech,” Kelly continued, referring to President Obama. “He said nothing about it in his State of the Union speech. He has said nothing about it. He's not -- he's not restaffing the office that… looks at closing the facility.”
White House officials say they remain committed to closing Guantanamo but have been blocked from doing so by Congress, leading officials to close the small State Department office charged with finding new homes for the detainees. At the same time, Kelly –- who took over as Southcom commander last year -- began laying the groundwork for a substantial overhaul of Guantanamo, testifying that many of the buildings there are “falling apart.”
“Gitmo seems to be the one place they don’t care about spending money,” said David Remes, a defense lawyer who represents detainees, noting that the plans for the overhaul are moving forward even as the sequester is forcing costs and layoffs throughout the government.
“They will spare no expense to keep these men there rather than bring them to the United States.”
Guantanamo is already considered the country’s most expensive prison per capita by far, with an operating budget this year of nearly $177 million, which means that taxpayers are paying more than $1 million for the care and maintenance of the 166 detainees.
But Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for the Southern Command, told NBC News that Kelly has recommended substantial new spending that includes nearly $100 million slotted to build new barracks for the 848 guards stationed at the facility. The current guard barracks are plagued by mold, he said.
In addition, Flanders said, Kelly has signed off on construction projects that include:
- a new $12 million dining hall for the troops;
- a new $11.2 million hospital and medical units for the detainees;
- a $9.9 million “legal meeting complex” where lawyers can meet their detainee clients;
- a $10.8 million “communications network facility” to store data, including computer records and tapes of interrogations, which has been required by a federal court order.
All these projects have been signed off by Kelly in the last few months and been forwarded to the Pentagon, where they are being reviewed by budget officials in Secretary Chuck Hagel’s office, Flanders said.
At the same time, Flanders said, the operations budget for Guantanamo has already increased substantially this year with the construction of a $40 million fiber optic cable being built from south Florida to the facility in Cuba. The cable is needed to improve Internet access, thereby allowing officials to have improved live video feeds of the military commission proceedings of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
In his testimony, Kelly emphasized that the costs of running Guantanamo are substantially higher because of its remote location at a U.S. military base on the eastern tip of Cuba.
“Everything that’s built down there is at least twice as expensive,” said Kelly. “So a ten-penny nail costs 20 cents. So, everything is more expensive. So we have to take care of the barracks. We have to replace the dining hall…It’s literally falling apart.
“And there’s other projects…none of them have to do with creature comforts for the detainees. They’re already living humanely and comfortably, acknowledging the fact they’re in jail.”