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At least $500 million has been spent since 9/11 on renovating Guantanamo Bay

By Scott Higham and Peter Finn
Monday, June 7, 2010; A01

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- At the U.S. naval station here, a handsome electronic sign hangs between two concrete pillars. In yellow enamel against a blue metal backdrop is a map of Cuba, the "Pearl of the Antilles," above flashing time and temperature readings.

"Welcome Aboard," the sign says.

The cost of the marquee, along with a smaller sign positioned near the airfield: $188,000. Among other odd legacies from war-on-terror spending since 2001 for the troops at Guantanamo Bay: an abandoned volleyball court for $249,000, an unused go-kart track for $296,000 and $3.5 million for 27 playgrounds that are often vacant.

The Pentagon also spent $683,000 to renovate a cafe that sells ice cream and Starbucks coffee, and $773,000 to remodel a cinder-block building to house a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant.

The spending is part of at least $500 million that has transformed what was once a sun-beaten and forgotten Caribbean base into one of the most secure military and prison installations in the world. That does not include construction bonuses, which typically run into the millions.

Also not included are annual operating costs of $150 million -- double the amount for a comparable U.S. prison, according to the White House. Add in clandestine black-budget items, such as the top-secret Camp 7 prison for high-value detainees, aptly nicknamed Camp Platinum, and the post-Sept. 11, 2001, bill for the 45-square-mile base easily soars toward $2 billion.

The Obama administration wants to close the detention operation and relocate it to a prison in Illinois, but the prospect of seeing the final detainees depart seems increasingly like a long-term project. If the president does succeed, the Pentagon will leave behind a newly remodeled military encampment, along with numerous questions about whether the cost of creating what then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once called the "least worst place" for suspected terrorists was worth the price.

In the first public accounting of how much has been spent on the base since the first detainees arrived in January 2002, The Washington Post obtained from the military a line-by-line breakdown of capital expenditures, ranging from the mundane to the exotic.

Overall, the prison camp operation that hugs the Caribbean coastline cost about $220 million to build over several years, a price that does not include Camp 7, which holds 16 of the most notorious detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. And $13 million was spent to construct a courthouse complex that appears custom-designed for Mohammed and his four co-defendants.

But as spending accelerated over the years, and more and more construction and renovation contracts were awarded, the number of detainees steadily declined, from a peak of 680 in May 2003 to 181 now.

Many of the projects itemized in the breakdown are reminders of suburban America -- familiar settings re-created in a Caribbean hothouse to comfort the military personnel and contractors who run detainee operations.

Millions went to build artificial-turf football and baseball fields that professional players would envy, surrounded by a cluster of facilities, including a running track, a skate park, an outdoor roller hockey rink and batting cages.

The Pentagon referred inquiries about the base to its commander, Capt. Steven H. Blaisdell, who defended the spending.

"Because GTMO is an isolated and remote duty location with no access to an off-base community, all services must be provided on station," he said in a statement. "The installation benefits from expenditure of funds through retention and readiness improvements, as well as long-term facility sustainment, restoration and modernization."

Although spending on new projects has slowed, it has not stopped. Next up is an expansion of one of the most popular spots on the base: O'Kelly's, an Irish pub.

'It's up to Washington'

Before Sept. 11, Guantanamo Bay was known for being the nation's oldest overseas military base and not much else. "Gitmo" served as a Navy port, a facility for Haitian and Cuban refugees, a base for drug interdiction operations, and the inspiration for the 1992 movie "A Few Good Men." But the attacks gave the base new purpose as the global holding cell in the George W. Bush administration's "war on terror." It also gave military commanders justification to ask Washington for more money.

The spending began in earnest in February 2002, after the Pentagon awarded a construction contract to KBR, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR renovated the chain-link-fence compound known as Camp X-Ray, the first prison facility for detainees, which produced the iconic images of men on their knees in orange jumpsuits and blacked-out goggles. Camp X-Ray is now abandoned, overrun with weeds and "banana rats," groundhog-size rodents that roam the base.

KBR was paid $169 million to build the prison camps and related facilities. The company said that did not include bonuses paid by the government. The military did not provide information about bonuses paid to KBR or other contractors.

Nearly all materials were floated in on barges from Florida, which along with labor added more than 50 percent in costs compared with construction in the United States, according to a military analysis.

To support the detention operation, the Pentagon began to construct and renovate facilities around the prison camps. It spent $690,000 to build a headquarters for the Joint Detention Group. The building was completed in April 2009, three months after Obama ordered Guantanamo Bay closed. The move to the new building is on hold.

The Pentagon spent $18.2 million on a prison hospital and $2.9 million on a psychiatric ward next door. The ward has 12 beds housed inside an elongated metal trailer-like building with reflective-glass windows and a small sign that reads "Behavioral Health Unit." The military would not permit Post reporters to look inside the facility, citing patient confidentiality.

Recently finished was the $26 million construction of an eight-mile stretch of road along the naval station's fenced and mined border with Cuba. A dilapidated hand-painted sign at the Cuban border post states, "Republica de Cuba. Territorio Libre de America." From the American side, a Marine bulldog painted on a hillside growls back.

The old, rutted road was considered an embarrassment.

"When I got here, the road was un-drivable," Marine Maj. Jerry Willingham said.

He said a Cuban colonel, who crosses into Guantanamo Bay every other month for a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, regularly mocked the state of American roads. "He used to complain about nearly breaking his ankle every time he walked in here," Willingham said.

Down the road from the prison camps is Club Survivor, a relic. The wooden shack that once served as a cafe stands empty, like a ghost town saloon. Military planners envisioned Club Survivor as a place for prison guards to drink a few beers, maybe play a game of volleyball on a field that overlooks the Caribbean.

A contractor set up bleachers and built a retaining wall, but the field is fallow, overgrown with weeds. The project was canceled because of the uncertainty over the future of the prison. The cost: $249,000.

"It didn't make sense to complete it," said a Navy captain and public works engineer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears about his family's safety because he worked in detention operations.

He pointed out another pre-Obama project across the bay. Building AV624 is a holdover from the 1950s, a two-story military-style barracks long past its prime. The Pentagon decided to renovate it for the hundreds of lawyers, dignitaries, journalists and others who would travel here to attend military commissions.

Work was completed in May 2009. It now resembles a Days Inn, with 56 renovated rooms, new bathrooms, and lounges outfitted with television sets and comfortable couches. The cost: $2.2 million.

But the hallways of AV624 are eerily silent, the rooms empty.

"We did all this work and there's nobody here," the Navy captain said. "It's up to Washington to decide what to do with it."

Located on the western side of the base, AV624 is an inconvenient ferry ride from where the military commissions take place on the eastern side. There, some lawyers and journalists sleep in tents during the commissions.

In 2006, the Pentagon began soliciting bids for a permanent courthouse complex expected to cost as much $125 million. But with the future of detainee operations uncertain, it scaled back the size and scope of the project to a $13.4 million prefabricated structure.

The building is known as the expeditionary judicial facility. In theory, the whole thing is portable and could be shipped back to the United States. It is cavernous, with sheets of glass separating spectators from defendants and prosecutors, judges and military juries. On one side of the courtroom are five defense tables, one for each of the Sept. 11 suspects. Outside the courtroom are five holding cells, trailer-like structures with heavy steel doors and small meeting rooms for attorney-client conferences.

Military charges against Mohammed and the others have been withdrawn, but the Obama administration has faced fierce local resistance to the federal trial it had planned to hold in New York. And some in the administration now think there is little choice but to send the case back to a military commission.

"If they give us the thumbs-up, then we go," said Army Col. Greg Fewer, the deputy director of operations at the courthouse complex. "We just need to be ready."

'Improving the quality of life'

The troops at Guantanamo Bay are stranded on this patch of parched land for anywhere from four months to two years. Commanders have tried to make the base seem like home.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Cooper Field complex along Sherman Avenue. With a pair of top-of-the-line baseball diamonds and a football field as its centerpiece, the complex looks like a high-end park in a U.S. resort town.

The Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department has spent $7.3 million on the baseball and football fields, $164,000 for a skate park, $97,000 on a roller-hockey rink and $60,000 for a batting cage. Soon to come: a soccer cage for $20,000.

Near the skate park is the go-kart track, completed in 2006. The Pentagon said it spent $296,000 to build the track; the official base newspaper, the Guantanamo Bay Gazette, reported that it cost $400,000.

"This will be a great step in improving the quality of life for the entire community," Craig Basel, the then-recreation director, said during the ribbon-cutting.

But the go-karts rarely worked. The six cars are battery-powered and can barely hold a charge, faltering after one or two laps around the course. After numerous failures, the track was shut down last month. The cars are now covered with tarps.

"They've been incredibly difficult to maintain," said Tara Culbertson, the current recreation director.

Burns and Roe and the Dick Corp., now called Dck Worldwide, joined forces to form BRDC, which built the welcome signs, the volleyball court, the go-kart track, the KFC/Taco Bell restaurant, the Starbucks cafe, many of the playgrounds and other projects. Together, the three contractors were paid $125 million.

"We are very proud of the work that we are doing in Guantanamo Bay supporting our military," spokeswoman Laurie Bowers said. "The projects that BRDC have been awarded were either competitively bid or negotiated using an industry standard pricing database as stipulated by our contract."

Surrounding the Cooper Field complex are housing developments and military barracks and neighborhoods filled with suburban tract homes. During the past nine years, the Pentagon has spent more than $114 million renovating and remodeling the housing projects.

Julie Hall, a civilian project manager, has been at the base for 18 years, on and off. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, Guantanamo Bay was "completely asleep."

But afterward, the population, which had hovered around 2,000 for decades, quickly quadrupled. Many residents were housed in rundown buildings and trailers that reeked of mildew.

Today, some of those buildings look like modern-day hotels with mirrored walls, brass handrails and handsome foyers.

In the surrounding neighborhoods are most of the 27 top-dollar but modest-looking playgrounds built for a population of 5,500. In areas such as Fairfax County, planners allot one playground for every 2,800 people.

"The playgrounds are built around the number of neighborhoods the installations has, not by the number of children," said Blaisdell, the base commander, noting that the base has 15 neighborhoods.

The average cost of a playground at the base is $130,000, two to three times the cost of similar facilities in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

There are 398 children younger than 18 at Guantanamo Bay. During a recent visit to the base, few of them seemed interested in the playgrounds. Still, $1.6 million has been awarded for more playgrounds, bringing total spending to $5.1 million.

Hall said she was shocked by the figure.

"It would amaze me if we paid that much," she said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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