GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — One sweltering afternoon last month, a Boeing C-17 military transport plane arrived at the U.S. naval base here. It had come to take six low-level detainees to new lives in Uruguay after 12 years of imprisonment.
Days before, Vice President Joe Biden had called Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, pressing him to resettle the men. The foreign leader had offered to accept the detainees last January, but by the time the U.S. was ready for the transfer this summer, Mujica was worried that it would be politically risky, according to White House officials.
After four days of frantic negotiations between the two governments, the C-17 flew away without its intended passengers.
Although President Obama pledged last year to revive his efforts to close Guantánamo, his administration has managed to free just one low-level prisoner this year, leaving 79 who are approved for transfer to other countries. It also has not persuaded Congress to lift its ban on moving the remaining 70 higher-level detainees to a prison inside the United States.
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“It’s a long way from being closed,” said Gen. John F. Kelly, the leader of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Joint Task Force Guantánamo.
More than 12 years after George W. Bush’s administration sent the first prisoners here, tensions are mounting over whether Obama can close the prison before leaving office, according to interviews with two dozen administration, congressional and military officials.
Legal pressures also are building as the war in Afghanistan approaches its official end and the judiciary grows uncomfortable with the military’s practice of force-feeding hunger strikers. And military officials here, faced with decaying infrastructure and aging inmates, are taking steps they say are necessary to keep Guantánamo operating — but may also help institutionalize it.
Obama has argued that Guantánamo should be closed because of its high costs, nearly $3 million per detainee annually, and because it endangers national security; it has become an anti-American symbol of past torture and other detainee abuses.
“Every month counts,” said Cliff Sloan, the State Department’s envoy on detainee transfers. “The period between now and the end of the year is critical because the path to closure demands substantial progress in moving people from Guantánamo.”
Inside the camps
The prison facilities amid this harsh landscape of sun, scrub and dust have expanded, even as the detainee population has shrunk.
In 2003, about 680 prisoners filled Camp Delta, a sprawling complex with three units of open-air cellblocks and another area of communal bunks.
Today, the remaining 149 detainees live in newer buildings, and Camp Delta sits empty.
Hidden in the hills about a half-mile back from the seacoast sits Camp 7, an intelligence operations center where a group of high-level terrorism suspects, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, are imprisoned.
Last year, the Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, requested about $200 million to rebuild that structure; to upgrade housing for the 2,000 troops participating in the prison task force; and to replace or repair other buildings, arguing that the compound was not designed for long-term use and patching up various buildings was no longer adequate.
The Pentagon rejected the request, but Congress may approve about $23 million for two wish-list items: replacing the kitchen building and moving the medical clinic closer to Camps 5 and 6, concrete-walled structures where most of the detainees now live surrounded by layers of high fences covered with concertina wire.
In Camps 5 and 6, detainees are housed according to behavior, not whether they have been designated for release or continued imprisonment.
Those who comply with prison rules may live communally, eating and praying together. Up to 20 live in each cellblock, where the cell doors remain open most of the day, allowing the prisoners to mingle around a metal table or outside in a recreation yard.
Communal detainees have minimal contact with guards but are under constant surveillance through two-way glass and security cameras.
During a recent visit by a reporter, several men with long beards and short hair, wearing white and brown prison garb, stood talking in an open space. Others napped in their cells, with mats tented over their heads to shield them from the lights.
A few men sat indoors on white plastic lawn chairs, watching a television and wearing wireless headphones. Some cellblocks are designated for those who want to watch Western television and DVDs, while others are for those who want to avoid seeing women who are not covered up.
Later, several prisoners put mats on the floor and prayed in the direction of Mecca.
Mohammed and four others accused of aiding the Sept. 11 attacks have been undergoing protracted pretrial hearings in the military commission system. Its chief prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, recently extended his tenure for three years in an attempt to see the case through, officials said.
But about half of the inmates who are detained, according to a 2010 interagency review group report, were probably just foot soldiers helping the Taliban fight the Northern Afghan militias.
These inmates violated no law and make up the bulk of the 79 recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met. But they generally come from countries too unstable for Congress’ transfer restrictions.
This summer, a new warden, Col. David Heath, took over the guard force here. He gave detainees who were relatively well behaved but not yet eligible for communal conditions — it takes 90 straight days of compliance — eight hours of recreation time a day, up from two.
“That was a change I made following Ramadan, just to show them there is a new camp commander here, and I do things a little bit differently,” he said.
Heath’s predecessor presided over a period of greater turmoil. After a two-year lull in which no low-level prisoners were released, the detainees in early 2013 began a widespread hunger strike.
The protest prompted Obama to revive his effort to close the prison. He appointed Sloan, a former White House and corporate attorney, and another envoy to negotiate transfer deals.
By law, the defense secretary has the final say on whether it is safe enough to release a detainee. Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, approved no low-level transfers, but his successor, Chuck Hagel, approved 10 by December and another early this year.
Of the 83 detainees transferred under Obama, five have participated in terrorist or insurgent activity afterward, and two others are suspected of doing so, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a spokesman for Hagel, said he “fully supports” closing Guantánamo but wants to strike the right balance weighing the benefits of transfers and security assurances from host nations.
Hagel finally notified Congress in early July that he had approved the Uruguay deal, setting off a 30-day waiting period under the transfer restrictions. That led to Biden’s call and the C-17 flight to Guantánamo, to be ready if Mujica gave the go-ahead. But he instead delayed the deal.
The administration did not observe the waiting period in May, when it sent five high-level Taliban detainees to Qatar in a prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, America’s only prisoner of war from the conflict in Afghanistan. Hagel said he was satisfied with the Qataris’ security assurances and argued that delaying the transfer would put Bergdahl’s life at risk.
House Republicans retaliated by voting to forbid transferring any Guantánamo detainees anywhere, although that may not become law.
“I don’t see any support in the House for relaxing the current restrictions, or backing off our ban, in light of the president’s recent violation of the law,” said Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Still, Sloan argued that it is possible the politics could change if most of the low-level prisoners can be transferred. Relocating a population of less than 100 to a domestic prison would be a smaller problem, he said. And reducing the number of detainees would cause the expense of Guantánamo per detainee to soar further.
Taxpayers are spending about $443 million on the prison in 2014, including the cost of flying legal teams here for every commission hearing. Housing a federal inmate in a domestic maximum-security prison costs far less, $30,280 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Prisons, although that does not include court costs.
Meanwhile, the government is bracing for a wave of new habeas corpus lawsuits after combat operations in Afghanistan come to an end in December, raising the question of whether the legal basis for wartime detentions — the 2001 authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks — has expired.
Heath, the new warden, said he was “not intimidated” by the prospect of increasing judicial scrutiny over prison procedures. Meanwhile, he said, he intends to maintain routine for all the detainees to keep the days passing smoothly.
“I don’t spend much time thinking about who might be released or won’t,” he said.“They’ve been here a long time.”