New group of soldiers going to Guantanamo -- for a year

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The Puerto Rican National Guard is heading home soon and soldiers from their Virgin Islands and Rhode Island counterparts are mobilizing for yearlong tours at the detention center President Barack Obama said he would shut in January.

Commanders say they can still systematically airlift all 223 detainees out of here, if the Obama administration finds places to put them. But they are preparing for fresh forces to soon start patrolling the cell blocks, and how to manage rebelling prisoners if a missed deadline triggers unrest.

Long before the White House begrudgingly acknowledged that it may not meet its shut-down date, the Pentagon was preparing for a longer prison camps stay.

"The last order we received was signed last January by the president. It says, 'Close and cease detention operations by this January.' So until such time somebody changes that for us we are planning to be able to reach that goal," said the latest prison camps commander, Rear Adm. Tom Copeman, who arrived in June on an assignment that could last two years.

It's not that soldiers and sailors at this remote base are unaware of what Copeman called the "churning" in political Washington over whether the prison camps can be emptied on time. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit last month to say there might be trouble in meeting the commander in chief's timetable.

Then came the "Saturday Night Live" skit, re-broadcast on this base via the Armed Forces Network, mocking Obama for his as-yet unfulfilled campaign promises, chief among them his Jan. 22 pledge to empty the prison camps within a year.

For months, Congress has thrown up a series of obstacles to closing it down. It banned the release of detainees into the United States, shifting the onus mostly to Europe to resettle detainees that an Obama task force has declared safe enough to let go. It requires 45 days notice before a captive may leave here to face charges in a federal court.

The House of Representatives capped it last week with a 258-163 nonbinding resolution that said, even in prison, keep them off U.S. soil, then stoked uncertainty Wednesday when key congressional negotiators struck a compromise deal that would allow some Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. only for trial.

The White House "grossly miscalculated the difficulties in doing this properly" and never sold an effective plan to Congress, said Heritage Foundation scholar Cully Stimson, who ran detainee affairs at the Pentagon during the Bush administration.

So "the military simply has to assume the mission will continue until they're told definitely otherwise. If we acted on what presidents say versus what presidents order then we're going to be in this sort of push-me, pull-me twilight zone. And the military cannot live in that kind of world."

Meantime, as it prepares for its ninth year, the Pentagon has sought to shift the spotlight away from the prison camps whose fate has yet to be scripted.

Journalists this week were given a stark choice on what they could report on at this base that once hummed with mix-and-match media opportunities: Fly in from Fort Lauderdale on Monday and tour the showcase detention center, which a German TV crew did Tuesday.

Or fly in from Andrews Air Force Base on Monday and cover only Toronto-born Omar Khadr's war court appearance, which two Canadian writers and The Miami Herald did Wednesday.

In the end, Khadr's military commissions hearing lasted 29 minutes, long enough for two former federal prosecutors from Washington, D.C., to go on record as the Canadian captive's lawyers. Barry Coburn and Kobie Flowers said they would defend Khadr, if Attorney General Eric Holder decides the Pentagon should proceed with a war crimes trial that seeks life in prison for the Canadian who was captured at 15 in a July 2002 firefight that fatally wounded a Special Forces soldier.

Khadr has grown into adulthood behind the razor wire here, and fired a succession of free-of-charge lawyers. Coburn, his 10th attorney in five years, vowed "to explore every option short of a trial" to send him home.

Department of Justice attorneys are looking at the Bush-era prosecutions and will decide by Nov. 16 whether to move them to federal courts.

If they opt for a civilian trial, Khadr would be tried in Washington, said Navy Capt. John Murphy, the Pentagon prosecutor.

No one has said where the White House might move the Pentagon's Sept. 11 war crimes tribunal now in pre-trial hearings here. But Holder and Gates are also to decide by mid-November whether to bring alleged al-Qaida kingpin Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four fellow accused to a civilian courts near New York City or Washington.

An emerging timetable would likely mobilize military juries to hear cases early next year -- after the president's deadline for closure has passed.

"It presents more of a challenge than if everyone's lockstep in the whole government," Copeman said.

"We've got lots of uncertainty about the place, but we're getting by."

Getting by means putting more troops into the pipeline to patrol the prison camps.

It also means "doing some prudent and logical planning" to surge the guard force into the camps in case riots break out early next year, said Copeman -- if the detainees despair on learning that the prison camps aren't closing on time, or come to realize that they are not going home.

The contingency plan will seek no extra guards here but might lengthen Military Police shifts, if commanders want a bigger show of force in the seven camps that house the 223 foreign men, most of whom have been held without charge for nearly eight years.

About 200 soldiers, MPs from the Rhode Island National Guard, are already in Fort Lewis, Wash., retooling combat skills acquired in Iraq for policing skills at Camp Delta, the sprawling barbed-wire ringed prison camp compound overlooking the Caribbean.

"Many of them have deployed four or five times," said Army Lt. Col. Bruce Fletcher from Rhode Island.Also en route, to take over in December, is a Virgin Islands National Guard unit headed by an Anguilla native, Army Brig. Gen. Timothy L. Lake, who will join Copeman in the command staff overseeing the 2,100 troops, intelligence agents and civilian contractors who run the prison camps for $100 million a year.

The fixed costs, Copeman said, do not decrease even as the State Department finds nations to resettle men cleared for release.

"If you have one guy in the cellblock or you got 20 guys in the cellblock you still gotta have the AC and the power and guards, and a hut for the guards to live in and you got to feed them," the admiral said.

Eighteen detainees have left since Obama signed the executive order -- on his first full day in office -- instructing his government to close Guantanamo and move detainees to U.S. soil, if need be. One committed suicide in June, and was sent home for burial in his native Yemen. Another was sent to New York for trial as a co-conspirator in the 1998 East Africa bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, transferred before Congress began restricting the administration's hand.

Others were sent to new lives in Bermuda, Ireland and Portugal in deals struck by the State Department. Ambassador Daniel Fried, the special White House envoy, has been shuttling mostly to Europe to persuade friendly nations to resettle and absorb long-held, now cleared captives who can't go home to places like China, Syria and Uzbekistan for fear of religious persecution.

Six Muslim Uighurs could go to the Pacific Island nation of Palau later this month.

(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)

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