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New Gitmo Commander: 'Majority of Detainees Have… a Relative Degree of Freedom'

VICE News traveled to Guantanamo Bay to speak to the new commander of the base. His plans seem to indicate its detention facility won't be closing anytime soon.

by Jason Leopold
Oct 1 2014, 9:05pm

Photo via US Army

Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad says you need "skin about an inch thick" to work at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Dozens of recent news reports have alleged detainees are abused by military guards and subjected to brutal force-feedings by nurses. There's also the general negativity that surrounds Gitmo, where the 149 remaining detainees — once among 779 branded the "worst of the worst" — have been held for more than a decade.

"If I sat in my office for 15 hours a day and didn't have an understanding of what really went on here, I would be upset," the new commander of the joint task force that operates Guantanamo told VICE News during a wide-ranging interview at the base. "It's easy to put those articles out of my mind when [I] see the reality of Guantanamo. I sleep really well at night knowing that I have 1,950 people who are committed to the mission; they're committed to national security and they do the job professionally."

'My focus is to maintain day-to-day consistency of the mission to make sure I am not only taking care of the 149 detainees, but the men and women who protect them on a daily basis.'

An aviator in the US Navy for more than two decades who previously worked at the White House, Cozad had no previous experience running a detention facility before taking command at Guantanamo. He admitted that the knowledge he possessed about the facility was gleaned from Google searches, news reports, and blog posts.

"My perception [and] understanding of Guantanamo was just like 99 percent of the population," Cozad said.

He first set foot on the base about three months ago, not long after he was chosen to be the detention facility's 11th commander. He said once he arrived he discovered "there are many more dimensions to the mission of Guantanamo that [the media has] left on the cutting room floor."

Guantanamo spent $300,000 on liquid supplements while denying a mass hunger strike. Read more here.

That mission, Cozad repeatedly pointed out during our 30-minute interview, is to provide "safe, humane, legal, and transparent custody and care" to the detainees in accordance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

"I couldn't be more proud of the job the folks are doing."

Cozad starts his day at 5am by going for a short jog, returns to his home on the base, has a cup of coffee with his wife, and plays with their yellow Labrador. He starts work at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo headquarters at about 7am. He periodically reviews media articles that mention Guantanamo to "get a sense of what folks are saying." And he tries to get out of the office every day to speak with Joint Task Force military personnel.

"It's not uncommon for me to push away from the desk two or three times [a day] at least and get out to walk through the camps," he said. "When I do that it's not about negotiating with detainees. I don't talk to the detainees. I've got professional MPs who focus on that aspect of the mission. I'm going out to see how the people are doing. What can I do for them? How is everybody doing?

"My focus is to maintain day-to-day consistency of the mission to make sure I am not only taking care of the 149 detainees, but the men and women who protect them on a daily basis."

One things that impresses Cozad, he said, is how the US military goes to great lengths to accommodate the detainees' religious beliefs.

"I arrived here during Ramadan, which is historically a quieter period," he said. "We changed the meal schedule, we give them the ability to congregate to pray. That's something I haven't heard about or read about prior to coming here. Post-Ramadan, I expected the worst things to happen based on my knowledge of what I read in the paper. But it turns out the majority of the population here is a compliant population."

But there are also a small number of detainees, he said, "that are actively in the fight" — a sentiment that was often shared by his predecessors and the Pentagon. Those detainees "will do anything and everything to be non-compliant, to fight the rules, to buck the system. Although a small part of the mission, those are the folks that verbally assault the guard force, that physically assault the guard force, to look for any and every way to not follow the rules."

New York's 'Little Gitmo' holds terrorism suspects in extreme isolation for years. Read more here.

Cozad said he resents the fact that Guantanamo is mired in what he considers unwarranted controversy. For example, "75 percent" of the news reports about the detention facility continue to use a photograph of "detainees in orange jumpsuits probably from January 20, 2002 when War on Terror captives were first rendered here."

"It's an image that's the farthest from the truth today," he said.

Although detainees continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, a "majority have the ability to walk around and do things with a relative degree of freedom. They have the opportunity to recreate together and the opportunity to socialize. Again, that's something you don't see reported."

So what to make of the claims by the civilian lawyers who represent detainees that the men have been treated inhumanely? It's just not true, Cozad said.

"As the guy who's responsible for the safe and humane treatment per the Geneva Convention, I can categorically deny that," he told us. "It doesn't happen here. Period."

* * *

Cori Crider, an attorney with the international legal organization Reprieve, bristled when told Cozad painted a portrait of Guantanamo as a facility where detainees are treated respectfully and can move around freely.

"I'm afraid that when a man assumes command at Gitmo, he seems to fall through Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole and stops speaking the same English as the rest of us," she told VICE News. "Abuse is just one of many words that has been erased from the Defense Department's dictionary. According to the Gitmo authorities, there's also no such thing as 'force-feeding' at the base — only 'enteral feeding.' Recently, they decided there was also no such thing as a 'hunger strike' going on — only 'longterm non-religious fasts.'

"Is there still 'abuse' happening at Guantanamo, in the good old English meaning of the term? Yes."

One of Crider's clients is 43-year-old Syrian national Abu Wa'el Dhiab, who has been cleared for transfer out of the detention facility since 2009. During the past year, he has mounted a high-profile legal challenge of Guantanamo's force-feeding protocols, which he claims are abusive.

Cozad wouldn't talk about Dhiab's case specifically. When pressed about Dhiab's allegations of physical abuse, Cozad raised his voice.

"I will place my right hand on a Bible and attest to the fact that everything we do here complies with the Geneva Convention, Common Article 3, and it's safe and humane," he said.

Crider rejected this.

It's more evidence of the deep disconnect between the military's and civilian attorneys' characterizations of what actually goes on at Guantanamo, which continues to make it difficult to know what the truth is. 

Cozad said transparency is one of the cornerstones of the mission that he takes seriously. However, the Obama administration, which prides itself on being the "most transparent in history," asked a federal court judge to shut the public and media out of Dhiab's hearing next week, arguing that the case involves classified information and that secrecy is needed to prevent "slip-ups" that would lead to the unauthorized disclosure of information. 

During VICE News' visit to Guantanamo, two military personnel joked that the removal of green netting surrounding a now vacant camp proved that Guantanamo was committed to transparency.

* * *

Cozad said what he's been focusing on during his first 90 days on the job is "consistency."

"If you look at the rotational nature of this task force, you'll notice we got folks who rotate anywhere from six months to two years," Cozad said. "We have got detainees who have been here for 12-plus years. The key to that safe, humane mantra that we espouse is consistency from day shift to night shift; consistency from one team to another, one cell to another in the way we do our mission."

He said implementing or proposing any changes "is the furthest thing from my mind."

It's not just the infrastructure that is aging. Medical personnel told VICE News that they're now treating several detainees for arthritis.

One change made in the last year at Guantanamo has been to the Joint Task Force emblem, which has been redesigned. For more than a decade, sunshine and the picturesque bay nearby were prominently displayed in the five-point logo, along with the symbols of the five military branches that make up the joint task force.

The new symbol includes the razor wire surrounding the detention camps, arguably an odd change to make as the Obama administration tries to shutter the facility, which it has called the number one recruitment tool for terrorists.

Captain Tom Gresback, Guantanamo's public affairs director, told VICE News the new design "exemplifies the joint nature of the task force mission with the symbolism from each service represented while having the reminder of our location in Cuba surrounded by the blue of the Caribbean."

The redesign was completed in late 2013 by an "enterprising soldier" who worked for Guantanamo's official magazine, the Wire. He "took it upon himself to take on the project at no additional cost to the task force," Gresback said. "The command merely took him up on his offer of a fresh approach and everyone is extremely pleased with what we now have."

* * *

While the White House's special envoys at the State Department and Pentagon are trying to transfer detainees and carry out the President's goal of closing Guantanamo, Cozad is taking steps that would seem to indicate the detention facility will remain open.

In addition to a new dining facility for the joint task force, Cozad hopes to break ground on a new detention hospital within camps 5 and 6 if Congress passes a defense appropriations bill with the funding request intact. The current detainee hospital, located within another part of the camp that has been otherwise empty for years, was supposed to be temporary; it's rusting and prone to leaks when it rains. 

"It's a negative impact on the mission," Cozad said. "We completely support the Commander-in-Chief's guidance to close the detention mission in Guantanamo. We'll continue to support transfer efforts as it comes down through the national security staff and the Secretary of Defense. But in the meantime I also have to look into the future. I have an obligation to provide safe, legal, humane treatment regardless of whether its 149 detainees or down to five."

It's not just the infrastructure that is aging. Medical personnel told VICE News that they're now treating several detainees for arthritis.

* * *

Next January, on the 13th anniversary of the prison's opening, Cozad will be put in an awkward position when a Guantanamo detainee held since 2002 will officially become a published author. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's 448-page Guantanamo Diary recounts brutal treatment at the hands of his military captors, which he says included being taken out on a boat and threatened with death.

'Guantanamo: Blacked-Out Bay.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

"I read some excerpts," Cozad said of the book. But he added he can't be focused on "what books say or do."

"I have to be focused on the present."

That includes looking at "trends" to ensure there isn't a repeat of last year's mass hunger strike. Another uprising is a possibility, especially since detainee transfers have slowed to a crawl.

"Detainees have access to news," Cozad said. "They don't live in a vacuum. They're aware about world events, they talk about world events. I can't speculate what a detainee thinks. They understand their ability to manipulate things here."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold