Guantanamo renovations cost at least $500 million

Scott Higham and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 7, 2010; 1:00 PM

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has spent at least $500 million to transform Guantanamo Bay from "a sun-beaten and forgotten Caribbean base into one of the most secure military and prison installations in the world."

Post writers Scott Higham and Peter Finn were online Monday, June 7 at 1 p.m. ET discuss their story about the investigation into the expenses and take your questions.


Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Hi everyone,

Thanks for joining us. Looking forward to your questions so let's get started.


Nashville, Tenn.: Okay ... Gitmo is an expensive prison. So, with the great idea to move prisoners to Illinois, are we going to WASTE the $500M spent in Gitmo and spend ANOTHER $500M for Illinois?! THAT would be the true tragedy.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: There are probably a few ways to look at this. The White House would argue, and has to Congress, that it costs half as much annually to run a Gitmo-equivalent prison in the U.S. so over time money will be saved. And the administration doesn't look at this in terms of money but argues for the closure of Guantanamo because they say it is a recruitment tool for terrorists. Alternatively, a whole lot of money has been spent and you can't disassemble those prison camps and move them to the U.S. so others would argue to keep Guantanamo open, insisting that it is a state-of-the-art and completely secure faciity.


suburban Maryland, near Washington, D.C.: Hey, Post, please get a clue. Your article is exaggerated and mistaken, in premise and details.

GTMO is a tiny, isolated place. Personnel can move only within about 10% of the 9 mi by 5 mi base; A third of the area is water, much of it unsafe. Most of the land is impassable hills, or wetlands and endangered-species refuges protected by US law and regulation, with some areas off limits for safety or security.

Most of the military personnel are without families for a year, and desperately need facilities for physical fitness, relaxation and recreation. Only the Navy base personnel, on longer assignments for the base's other missions, have spouses and children on base.

What is remarkable is not the extravagance, but the scarcity of facilities. The cost of facilities and materials is higher because of transportation costs -- EVERYTHING is barged or flown in. Military personnel have mandatory physical fitness requirements. Yes, the base has two swimming pools; One is for recreation, one for military fitness and training use. The synthetic-turf sports fields need no expensive watering and are safer and more durable than the rough grass fields were; Field use is heavy after duty hours and after the heat of the day abates.

The paved perimeter road is needed to patrol and defend the fenceline. The "welcome" sign is usually used for security and safety notices, in addition to the time and temperature display (the latter is a safety factor affecting training and operations.) Some of your photos show a red flag, flown to indicate that the temperature-humidity index is in the danger range.

The housing units, recently renovated, were built decades ago, and everybody lives in very little space -- only tiny barracks rooms are single-occupancy, and families often have to put three kids in a bedroom. The base terrain forced the breakup of housing areas into small clusters, and it is unreasonable to ask pre-school children and mothers pushing strollers to walk a mile to a playground. No responsible parent would send the kids to the playground in mid-day 95-degree heat -- the playgrounds aren't vacant in the evening.

The Cuban "guardhouse" was used to inspect local employees leaving the base after work, checking for contraband and exchanging any US currency for Cuban money at a poor exchange rate. The Cuban sign was intended as an insult to the US.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Thanks for your comment. We wanted to look at all spending since 9/11 in light of the administrtion's determination to shutter the detention operation. Many of the points you make are reflected in the article.


Philadelphia, PA: Have you been to the prison at Guantanamo Bay? Is it the cushy camp with gourmet food that Duncan Hunter told us it was a few years ago?

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: We've both been several times. Don't know about gourmet food, but you can decent meals on the base from the mess hall to a range of restuarants, McDonalds, the Jamaican Jerk House, the Irish pub, among others.


Arlington VA: 1. What other missions, such as counter drug ops, are supported out of the base? It existed for something before the prison was established there; wouldn't if be fair to assign some of the support costs to those missions?

2. Since the families stationed there can't go into Cuba for a shopping, a meal, entertainment or a night out like those stationed in Europe and Japan, aren't most of the costs you cited for playgrounds, sports fields, etc. reasonable?

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: There are refugee operations, most recently following the Haitian earthquake when the military used Guantanamo as a staging area. There are drug interdiciton operations. The need for recreation facilities is reasonable, but the level of spending at the base probably wouldn't have happened without the detention operation. Gitmo was a sleepy place before 9/11.


Montgomery County: Do you know how many years it takes to go from perception that facilities are needed to DoD budget planning to OMB approval for the budget request to congressional action to authorize and appropriate funds to actually issuing a contract to ordering and shipping materials to starting construction? Why is there any surprise that administration policy could pull the rug out from under detention camp projects?

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Many of the projects at Gitmo did not need approval from OMB because they were under the threshold for major capital improvement projects. It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that the adminsitration wanted to close the detention oepration because Obama had vowed to do just that throughout the campaign.


Philly: "... but you can decent meals on the base from the mess hall to a range of restuarants, McDonalds, the Jamaican Jerk..."

I think Hunter was saying that the prisoners had cushy conditions and gourmet food, not the military and civilian personnel.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: The prisoners have a choice among six Halal meals per day. Calling them gourmet might be a slight stretch. We visited the prison kitchen and it's like any large, institutional cafeteria operation.


Montgomery County: Detainees get one of several meal choices, to give them something similar to their country's cuisine. Some eat rice, some eat couscous-type grain; some eat meat, some are used to vegetables. The detention camp staff often wish they could eat what the prisoners get, instead of mess-hall food. Personnel who don't work in the camp eat typical Navy chow (which isn't bad), or go to the fast-food franchises or the base clubs.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Thanks.


Anonymous: Please, I would like to know why Obama's administration doesn't just close Guantanamo Bay.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Because they don't have an alternative location yet for the prisoners they intend to put on trial, either in federal court or military commissions, and those they intend to hold indefinitely under the laws of war. Congress had not provided funding to purchase a prison in the United States. Nor is there legal authority to bring those who will not be put on trial. The administration does not want to bring in anyone to the U.S. who is cleared for release. They want to send them home or resettle them in third countries. But they haven't yet lined up enough countries and in some cases, such as Yemen, they don't want to send them home until security conditions improve.


Gitmo v. Bagram: Do we have hard numbers on the cost of detention at Bagram vs. the cost of detention at Gitmo? A per detainee cost would I think demonstrate the stupidity of holding innocent people at either location. Why not let the innocent detainees go free, thereby saving billions of dollars, and then assign someone to keep tabs on them? Surely the cost of this would be miniscule compared to the costs of detention.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: The administraiton has cleared some of the detainees for release, as we just noted. But there is a large number destined for court, or detention under the laws of war. The administration does not believe these people are "innocent," as you put it.


Monthgomery County: You may be right that 9/11 and the addition of the camp sparked more spending. GTMO was earlier being reduced, old facilities were removed or demolished rather than being maintained or refurbished. The facilities for handling Cuban and Haitian refugees were subject to fluctuating demand, the drug interdiction activity is intermittent and fluctuating, and Navy fleet training and readiness programs had changed. Then came 9/11.

Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Good comment.


Scott Higham and Peter Finn: Thanks everyone. Got to run. Have a great day!



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