GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The commander of the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center has backed President Barack Obama’s public stance of closing the prison down.
Obama called the base “not in the best interests of the American people” in an April speech that came as scores of prisoners were on a hunger strike to protest their ongoing captivity, in many cases for more than a decade without charge.
The president said he would act to have the base closed, adding, "It is contrary to our interests and needs to stop."
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Butler, commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, said he agreed with Obama’s pledge to shut down the detention facility, which in a month will mark 12 years since the first prisoners arrived, and has so far cost taxpayers $5 billion.
“As a naval officer, I fully support whatever it is my commander in chief is going to tell me to do,” Butler said. “So I’m going to fully support that effort.”
But with only three prisoners transferred out of Guantanamo recently and just one appearing before the new parole-board-type hearings in the six months since Butler settled into his job, shuttering the facility is far off.
“In the meantime, we’re going to keep running the camps to the best of our ability,” he said.
Butler, who previously served as deputy director of the Navy's Air Warfare Requirements division, arrived at Guantanamo during the height of the mass hunger strike at the prison and amid a controversy over the force-feeding of detainees that human rights groups said rose to the level of torture.
He said confronting those issues was challenging and complex. However, the well-being of the guard force came first.
“My No. 1 priority is their welfare,” Butler said. “That, quite frankly, is my biggest challenge. The second one is the welfare of the detainees and just making sure everything we do is consistent with their health and welfare.”
He would not discuss claims made in a recent report aired by “60 Minutes” and since retracted, in which Col. John Bogdan, the prison warden, said twice as many guards suffered post-traumatic stress disorder at Guantanamo compared with soldiers deployed to combat zones.
During a tour of the facilities this week, Guantanamo officials emphasized that prisoners routinely hurl a “cocktail” of feces, semen and urine at guards, and that the assaults put the guard force under a great deal of stress. To underscore their point, several guards in Camp 5, the maximum-security facility where “noncompliant” prisoners are held, showed Al Jazeera America stains on foam padding on the ceiling in a prison block, which they said were feces.
“It’s a stressful environment,” said Butler. “But we provide the guard force with ways to vent.”
He was guarded in his response to questions about the prison's operations, the politics and the thorny legal issues that have arisen and prevented it from being closed.
He said the new periodic review boards — official government panels that examine the cases of Guantanamo’s “indefinite” prisoners to decide who should leave — are “going well.”