The U.S. military will begin offering to vaccinate the detainees at Guantánamo Bay on Monday in an effort to protect troops stationed there and help restart the stalled war crimes hearings, an administration official with knowledge of the Pentagon plan said.
The U.S. Southern Command, which has oversight of the prison, sought permission during the Trump administration to vaccinate the detainees, who include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of conspiring to carry out the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A memo dated Dec. 23 described the detainees as “a high-risk community,” and invoked both “the Geneva Convention and Department of Defense guidance.”
But the Pentagon postponed plans to start the vaccinations on Feb. 1, after elected officials and victims of the attacks accused the Defense Department of putting terrorism suspects ahead of the American people, who were only just starting to get access to the vaccines in substantial numbers at that point.
By Monday, the official said, all of the adults at the remote base in Cuba had been offered a vaccine, including the troops and civilian Defense Department employees — 1,500 in all — who work at the detention operation. An undisclosed number of staff members at the prison had declined.
The Pentagon began notifying Congress on Monday of its intention to begin making the vaccine available to the detainees within hours.
The vaccines are not mandatory for the military or civilian Defense Department employees.
The administration official said the decision to vaccinate the detainees was intended in part to protect those service members who had declined to be vaccinated.
“This is very much about the force protection of our people down there and the ability to move forward with the military commissions,” said the official. Also, “We have a legal obligation under international law to properly vaccinate these detainees.”
Taking the vaccine is also voluntary for the detainees, and it was not immediately known how many of the 40 who remained at Guantánamo Bay would accept the first shot of the two-shot Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. Many of them are approaching their second decade in U.S. detention and have chronic illnesses. The oldest is 73, and has a heart condition, diabetes and other geriatric illnesses.
The initiative to offer vaccines to the prisoners began last year when the chief of staff for Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of the Southern Command, sought permission in a memo to the deputy secretary of defense for health affairs.
On Jan. 14, a week before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Pentagon’s principal deputy general counsel at the time, William S. Castle, recommended that medical professionals be authorized to offer vaccinations to the detainees. He noted that the Pentagon “has repeatedly asserted in litigation that detainees receive health care comparable to that which is afforded active duty service members on the island, and that the level and type of treatment are dependent on, and consistent with, the accepted medical standard of care.”
The U.S. military base at Guantánamo has about 5,500 residents, including about 250 school-age children, and a foreign workforce of about 2,200 Jamaican and Filipino laborers who work under Pentagon contracts. The children are too young to be offered the vaccinations, but the foreign workers have been offered them.
As of April 1, according to health officials at the base, all but about 400 adults were entitled to vaccines, and about 47% of those eligible had not taken a single dose. Health officials there would not or could not quantify how many of those people had affirmatively refused to obtain a shot, which were being offered at a base ballroom that before the pandemic had served as a bingo parlor.
It is also not known how many people have been found to be infected with the coronavirus at the base, which is separated from Cuba proper by a minefield. The military acknowledged two cases in the first month, both of service members who recovered, but then imposed a blackout on specific disclosures.
The military has managed to prevent a major outbreak there by requiring people arriving from the United States to quarantine for 14 days.
No hearings have been held at the war court in more than a year, and nearly none of the defense lawyers have traveled there to meet with the detainees because of the pandemic. The International Red Cross canceled a series of visits for the protection of the unvaccinated detainees, as well.
Those few lawyers who have traveled there and undergone the two-week quarantine reported that they then met their clients in conditions that they said made communication virtually impossible. The detainees and visitors were kept many feet apart, separated by Plexiglas barriers and issued protective wear that left only their eyes exposed. They spoke through masks and found it difficult to hear.
The next proposed hearing on the war court calendar is Aug. 30, the date an Army judge has tentatively set for the arraignment of three prisoners from Southeast Asia who have been held without charge since 2003.
The defendants include an Indonesian prisoner known as Hambali and two Malaysian men, Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep and Mohammed Farik Bin Amin, who are accused of conspiring in the extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah’s 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta, which killed at least 11 people and wounded at least 80.
No dates have been set for resumption of the Sept. 11 hearings.