GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba – Its very existence was a secret at first. Camp 7 housed detainees considered by the Bush administration to be among the most wanted Islamist extremists in the world.
All were brought there from CIA prisons. Among them were the five men accused of helping plan the September 11, 2001 attacks and a Palestinian known as Abu Zubaydah, the first person to be subjected to a regime of torture that the agency called “interrogation reinforced”.
Today deserted, its former occupants moved to the main prison complex at Guantánamo Bay, the facility has become another front in the tangled legal battle that continues two decades after the events that led to the prison’s establishment.
Claiming that conditions in Camp 7 were substandard and extremely worrying, lawyers for the men who were held there from 2006 to 2021 are inspecting the site. They are trying to argue that the prisoners who were held there, sometimes in solitary confinement, should be given reduced sentences or the death penalty if found guilty.
Defense attorneys also want anything the men said while they were held there — whether during FBI interrogations or secretly recorded conversations — to be excluded from their records because, they say, , the location was indistinguishable from overseas black sites where men were tortured in CIA custody. .
They used these visits to gather evidence, including taking photos of the decaying detention site and bringing experts with them to offer assessments. Some of the lawyers say it is too early to know how the material could be used, including the photos, which are considered classified. But they say the visits, often with the prisoners they represent, can help build relationships between the prisoners and the American attorneys who are paid by the Department of Defense to defend them.
Prosecutors in war crimes trials oppose defense efforts. In the 9/11 case, which is currently in plea bargains, a prosecutor described statements the defendants gave to the FBI as key trial evidence. The prosecution’s position is that once CIA prisoners were brought to Guantánamo, anything they said during interrogation or to other prisoners was voluntary and therefore can be used in a court case.
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Susan Hensler, a defense attorney, visited Camp 7 for two hours last month with her client, an Iraqi accused of war crimes. She described it as “chilling” and “looking like being buried”.
Mrs. Hensler; the prisoner, who uses a wheelchair; and other members of his entourage crowded into his old cell and almost closed the door. “It was like being buried alive,” she said, calling it “clearly a facility custom-built for the operation.”
She was not allowed to explain further because, even though the prisoners left, something about the place is still classified. Legal teams who have visited in recent months have been allowed to describe their impressions of the facility, but not its specific features.
Neither the military nor CIA spokespersons would discuss the terms. The US government has consistently refused to say how much Camp 7 cost, which contractor built it, or what makes its design so special, adding to its mystery.
No photographs have emerged of the facility, which is hidden in hills far from suburban-style housing, the K-12 school and McDonald’s for the 6,000 residents of the 45-square-mile base. After President George W. Bush suddenly announced in September 2006 that the CIA had transferred 14 “high-value detainees” from secret locations overseas to Guantánamo Bay, it took the military another year to recognize that they had been separated from the 450 detainees who were already there.
“You disappeared from the map at Camp 7,” said Alka Pradhan, who represents Ammar al-Baluchi, a defendant in the 9/11 case and Mr Mohammed’s nephew.
Ms Pradhan spent less than three hours there and found that “the isolation was oppressive”.
Court testimony showed that the CIA controlled the prison for an undisclosed period and staffed it with guards who were civilians in military gear, apparently contractors for the agency.
She said the solitary confinement, clandestine guard force and other conditions make it the last known remnant of the CIA’s black sites program, which from 2002 to 2006 held more than 100 prisoners in Afghanistan, Poland, in Thailand and other countries.
Funding requests from years past have given a fleeting glimpse of a place whose infrastructure was deteriorating so rapidly that it was becoming unsafe for the special army guard unit that worked there as Task Force Platinum.
In 2013, senior officers described it as a failing facility bolstered by temporary solutions. It had moved on its foundations. Some doors could not close or open. Roofs could not hold rainwater. Over time, human waste from an overflowing sewage system spilled into cells and hallways.
“Electrical, mechanical and secure communications systems within current facilities are under stress and at risk of failure,” the military said in a 2018 $69 million request to build a new facility. Staff were ‘at risk’, he said, due to ‘the inefficiencies encountered in properly separating, isolating and screening occupants’. A funding request the following year estimated the cost at $88.5 million and said the failing complex needed 74 additional guards.
Instead, Southern Command, in consultation with intelligence agencies, decided to move the men to Guantánamo’s main detention facility. The commanders had said that grouping all the prisoners on a single site, consisting of two adjacent prison buildings, would be more cost effective.
The detention operation employs 1,500 troops and civilians, prison spokesman Maj. Dustin W. Cammack said, the same number of employees it had before the April 4, 2021 consolidation.
Christine Funk, a criminal defense attorney, visited the site with the Malaysian prisoner she represents as a Pentagon employee.
“There seems to be an element of unpredictability built into this Guantánamo prison, by design, which is its own form of torture,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
His client, Mohammed Farik Bin Amin, was held for 14.5 years in Camp 7 without charge. He was only recently arrested in a bombing case in Southeast Asia, which has no trial date.
“I’ve been in and out of jails and prisons in Minnesota for over 30 years,” Ms. Funk said. “I’ve seen everything from minimum to medium to maximum security. I would stay in any of them rather than stay in this Guantanamo prison.
Military judges have so far refused to issue a property preservation order. Some of its most secret intelligence systems are gone, but the deterioration has worsened.
Lawyers reported seeing snakes, tarantula carcasses, rodent droppings and black mold. On different visits, teams had to walk through or around puddles of water from broken ceiling sections. Journalists were denied similar access.
“I had a very dark thought when I entered Farik’s cell,” said Lt. Col. Chantell M. Higgins, Navy attorney for two former CIA prisoners – Mr. Bin Amin and Abu Zubaydah , whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin. Muhammad Husayn. Although he has been detained since March 2002, he has never been charged with a crime.
“My thoughts were, how is this an acceptable cell for someone who’s been held long-term like this?” said Colonel Higgins.