With its price tag rising each day as the inmate population grows older and sicker, the sudden firing of the top commander at Guantanamo Bay adds fresh fuel to the debate over the prison’s future and highlights a political, logistical and legal minefield that neither the Obama nor the Trump administration has managed to navigate.
The Pentagon this weekend relieved Rear Adm. John C. Ring of his command at the prison. Adm. Ring, like many other military leaders, politicians and security analysts, had spoken publicly about the massive logistical nightmares confronting the site — most notably that expensive facilities will have to be built for aging “high value” prisoners such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Military officials did not mention Adm. Ring’s public statements in their justification for the move, saying only that they had fired him “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.”
“This change in leadership will not interrupt the safe, humane, legal care and custody provided to the detainee population” at the prison, U.S. Southern Command said in a statement.
U.S. Army Brig Gen. John Hussey, the site’s deputy commander, will now serve as acting commander, the Pentagon said.
SOUTHCOM officials said only that the admiral was fired after the completion of an internal review, but some speculated that he was let go for going public with his concerns about the site’s long-term viability. Adm. Ring was scheduled to step down as Guantanamo’s commander in June as part of a regularly scheduled rotation of leadership.
Adm. Ring was “fired days after he stated that the inadequate medical care at #Guantanamo placed him at odds with his obligations under the Geneva Conventions,” human rights lawyer Patricia Stottlemyer said Sunday in a Twitter post.
Adm. Ring’s dismissal also shines a fresh spotlight on the political uncertainty and serious on-the-ground challenges for Guantanamo, commonly known as Gitmo. Analysts say the detainee camp on the tip of the island of Cuba, a staple of the post-9/11 national security landscape, seems destined to slowly morph into a “jihadi hospice” as the 40 inmates who remain there become senior citizens.
Few are satisfied with that scenario, but neither Republicans nor Democrats have been able to craft a viable alternative to the status quo.
President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the site, much like with President Trump’s vow to “load it up” with terrorists captured in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, ultimately failed amid a host of legal roadblocks and political opposition. Mr. Obama’s goal of closing the facility and transferring inmates to prisons on the mainland U.S. met harsh resistance in Congress. Mr. Trump’s plan to use the site to detain fighters from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups is legally dubious under current congressional authorizations, legal analysts say, and would only add to the ballooning costs.
Guantanamo once housed nearly 700 prisoners, but its population has dwindled to 40. Despite Mr. Trump’s promise, the population has dropped from 41 since he took office in January 2017.
Those who are left are stuck in legal limbo, and military trials of the detainees proceed at an often glacial pace. Mohammed has been awaiting a military commission trial for over a decade.
For Mr. Trump and the Pentagon, however, the legal hurdles of holding trials at Gitmo — and navigating the thorny issues of evidence that may have been gathered through torture in the post-9/11 years — pale in comparison with the ever-rising cost of caring for an aging population. The U.S. spends at least $445 million each year to run Guantanamo. With a population of 40, that’s a cost of more than $10 million per inmate each year, according to government numbers and human rights groups’ fact sheets.
By contrast, it costs about $78,000 to house an inmate annually at a federal maximum security prison.
Those numbers are expected to rise dramatically as the inmates require more medical care.
“I think the 40 who are left are going to die old men in that prison. I don’t think there’s the political will on either side of the aisle to make changes,” said Gil Barndollar, who served at Gitmo as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and is now director of Middle East studies at the Center for the National Interest.
“I don’t see any way we don’t have a couple dozen octogenarian jihadis cooped up down there a couple decades from now,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s just not an alternative.”
Adm. Ring was well aware of those realities. In an interview with Defense One before his firing, he described himself as being “stuck” — forced to provide increasingly expensive, delicate medical care at a facility that wasn’t designed for its population. With the inmates barred by law from coming to the U.S. mainland, medical staff and equipment have to be shipped to the prison in many cases, exponentially increasing the costs.
“I’m sort of caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “The Geneva Conventions’ Article 3 that says that I have to give the detainees equivalent medical care that I would give to a trooper. But if a trooper got sick, I’d send him home to the United States.”
Last year, one inmate underwent his fifth spinal surgery at Guantanamo, according to the Miami Herald. The prisoner’s attorneys argued that he was receiving “grossly inadequate” medical care at the site. The U.S. military denied those allegations.
Allowing prisoners — those who are extremely sick or dying, or those awaiting trial after over a decade in captivity — to be moved to the U.S. would require Congress to lift a restriction on the use of money to move terrorists to the mainland.
“Congress hasn’t shown much interest in adjusting that restriction,” said Scott R. Anderson, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former American diplomat who served as a legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
“At this point, the Trump administration could be in a better position to persuade [lawmakers] to lift it, but instead we’ve seen the Trump administration double down on the military commissions,” Mr. Anderson said. “They haven’t followed up on it in any meaningful way.”
American lawmakers and candidates could raise the issue of directing more cash to Guantanamo in order to update facilities and provide the necessary medical care. But that, analysts say, is a political nonstarter.
“The last thing you want to do is draw more attention to this place that’s on its way to becoming a retirement home,” Mr. Barndollar said.