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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.
Rear Adm. Richard Butler
Commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo
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.”
Only one prisoner, however, has appeared before a panel since an announcement about the revamped process was made last summer.
“That number is still being worked out,” Butler said. “We’ve had a few notifications so far. The number will evolve as they finish looking at which detainees they want to review. The piece I’m tasked with supporting, the logistical task, is giving them facilities to operate from (and) facilitating the notification to the other detainees who have (reviews) coming up.”
Recently, the Pentagon and White House rejected a $195 million budget request from United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to renovate Guantanamo. But Butler said he is not concerned, as “money is not an issue right now.”
“I have discretionary funds available to devote to specific areas where we’re having problems,” he said. “A good example is air conditioners, which are getting older and breaking. So money needs to be spent on that. I have sufficient operating funds to be able to address the critical breakdowns. Now, if we’re talking entire buildings, then no, I don’t have the money to replace those. But I can address some improvements that need to be made.”
Deciding what to renovate is one of Butler’s priorities for 2014.
“We spent a lot of time figuring out how we’re going to spend the discretionary funding,” he said, declining to discuss specific projects.
Not long after he arrived at the prison, Butler said, he implemented some new protocols and updated standard operating procedures after an investigation by SOUTHCOM found that guards and medical staff failed to abide by military regulations and contributed to the death of a prisoner in September 2012.
“There were recommendations in that report, and we’ve implemented them, and we’re doing well with regard to all of the recommendations in there,” Butler said, declining to discuss specifics about the new measures.
However, he did say that some of the new procedures were poorly received by the prisoners.
“Any change with the detainees’ routine, we tend to have a period of transition,” he said. When asked to clarify “transition,” he responded, “Where, if something changes, they’re very attuned to it.”
“We will get resistance from the detainees if we change anything,” he added. “For good or for bad or for whatever reason.”
Butler said one policy change, enacted last week, in which his staff will no longer provide the media with an accounting of the number of prisoners on hunger strike was made because the announcements “attracted attention” and “facilitated the protest of the detainees.”
“I’m not interested in doing that,” he said. “When we would give out a hunger strike number based on a request, we weren’t necessarily pushing the number out. We would just respond to media. It was not an accurate picture of what was going on down here.
“It really distracted from — (in) my perspective as the commander — the welfare of the detainees. That number really distracted from what my focus was, and I just wanted to know who are the detainees that we really have to worry about medically."
"The number (of hunger strikers), quite frankly, didn’t tell the story," he said. "There are detainees down here, a relatively small number, and they’re going to hunger-strike probably until the day they leave here.”
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