Senate Armed Service Committee Celebrates Agreement to Spend 32 Times More on Detainees

As Josh Gerstein and Adam Serwer lay out, the Senate Armed Services Committee just passed a new version of the Defense Authorization mandating military detention for terrorists. The language on detention includes the following two paragraphs:

Except as provided in paragraph (4) [which is a national security exception], the Armed Forces of the United States shall hold a person described in paragraph (2) [an Al Qaeda related terrorist] who is captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) in military custody pending disposition of the war.

[snip]

No amounts authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2012 may be used to construct or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any individual detained at Guantanamo for the purposes of detention or imprisonment in the custody or under the control of the Department of Defense unless authorized by Congress.

In other words, unless the government has a really good reason, they have to put accused terrorists caught during the AUMF-authorized war in military custody. And DOD can’t build a prison in the US specifically to house those detainees.

That makes it much more likely we’re going to put terrorist detainees at Gitmo, where as Carol Rosenberg recently reported, we spend 32 times as much holding prisoners as we spend in civilian prisons in the United States.

The Pentagon detention center that started out in January 2002 as a collection of crude open-air cells guarded by Marines in a muddy tent city is today arguably the most expensive prison on earth, costing taxpayers $800,000 annually for each of the 171 captives by Obama administration reckoning.

That’s more than 30 times the cost of keeping a captive on U.S. soil.

It’s still funded as an open-ended battlefield necessity, although the last prisoner arrived in March 2008. But it functions more like a gated community in an American suburb than a forward-operating base in one of Afghanistan’s violent provinces.

[snip]

It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years,” says retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, a West Point graduate who in 2008 was deputy commander at the detention center.

Alternately, we could put them in Bagram, the population of which has been ballooning under Obama’s Administration.

Today, there are more than 3,000 detainees at Bagram, or five times the number (around 600) when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. There are currently 18 times as many detainees at Bagram than at the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base, whose prisoner population has dwindled from a peak of 780 to 170.

[snip]

DOD is now reviewing bids from contractors to expand the facility to house up to 5,500 detainees. The project is expected to cost another $25 to $100 million when it is completed by the end of 2012.

It’s unclear what Bagram costs, per detainee.

But we do know it costs almost $1.2 million a year to keep a single troop in Afghanistan, for some of the same reasons it costs so much to keep Gitmo running, supply costs. The average federal prison guard in the US is paid about $55,000 (so figure $71,500 with benefits). Just the cost of the prison guard alone makes Bagram 16 times more expensive than a federal prison in the US, and that’s before you count the $60 million we’ve already spent on expanding the prison at Bagram and the $25 to $100 million we’re already planning on spending. And all those costs are based on a logistics chain through Pakistan, which is getting more and more questionable these day.

Meanwhile, the scary Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab spent 21 months of pre-trial detention in a low security prison in MI. Not only did no one get hurt with him in low security custody in the US, but no one nationally even noticed!

This is ridiculous. The Republican insistence that we use military law when civilian law is better and cheaper is going to bankrupt this country. And it’s not going to keep us any safer.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    In other words, unless the government has a really good reason, they have to put accused terrorists caught during the AUMF-authorized war in military custody. And DOD can’t build a prison in the US specifically to house those detainees.

    That makes it much more likely we’re going to put terrorist detainees at Gitmo, where as Carol Rosenberg recently reported, we spend 32 times as much holding prisoners as we spend in civilian prisons in the United States.

    I’m not sure this goes as far as you’re saying, Marcy. The language of the bill says detainees have to be in military — not civilian — custody (paragraph 1) and that no NEW military detention facilities can be built or modified to handle Gitmo detainees (paragraph 2).

    It still is possible under this bill, though, for the DOD to say “we can handle detainee X at an existing military detention center (such as Leavenworth) without having to modify it” and place detainee X in that facility.

    I’m not saying it’s at all likely, mind you, but the bill seems to allow for that possibility.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Not to mention there are specific complaints about doing it at Leavenworth because of the counterterrorism training they do there.

  3. Peterr says:

    @emptywheel: Which is a BS argument from the outset.

    Leavenworth is a big place, and bigger still since they opened the new detention facility that houses Bradley Manning. The idea that because they do CT training in one part means that terrorists cannot be housed in a completely separate part is ridiculous.

    They wouldn’t have to build anything new — simply designate one portion of a very large facility for the detention of this kind of detainee.

    Here are the key questions: (a) what is it about terrorist detainees that makes them different from other detainees in the military prison system, and (2) what does that difference mean for detention policy?

    The key difference, as I see it, is not that they are more likely to escape, or more likely to contact outsiders. It’s all about PR. Some want to detain them at gitmo to say “we’re tough on terrorists, so we put them in this special prison.” But this plays right into the hands of the terrorists, who want to be seen as special, who want to be seen as ultra-powerful, who want to be seen as able to stand up to the worst the US can dish out in a place known worldwide (rightly or wrongly) for torture.

    The answer is not to make them seem more special, but more ordinary. You don’t have to put them in cells with ordinary military prisoners (the potential for fights and worse among incarcerated GIs and these detainees would be massive), but to house them in a separate part of the same facility would puncture the image of Teh Mighty AQ. “They get the same treatment as any other military detainee — same food, same guards, same exercise hours, same everything.”

    And I’m reasonably sure that all it would take would be to shuffle around the prisoners within the facility — not construct anything new, or modify another other than cell assignments and various schedules for exercise and meals.

    Well, that and a willingness to stand up to the GOP warmongers.

    *sigh*

    Why do I get the feeling that I’ll get my pony before any of this happens?

  4. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: Pony? Why not a unicorn?

    We couldn’t even place detainees in the US when jobs were on the line. Not even in MI at the time of its worst depression.

    I agree with you in theory. (Though they’ve got more SuperMaxes and the communication restrictions in federal prisons).

    But we both know that would make about as much sense as calling pizza junk food rather than a vegetable. @Peterr:

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    DOD is now reviewing bids from contractors to expand the [Bagram] facility to house up to 5,500 detainees.

    It’s clear they intend to put the added detainees at Bagram. Perhaps a special few will be sent to Guantanamo, their “‘battle lab’ for new interrogation techniques” in “the global war on terror.” (Quotes courtesy of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Col. John P. Custer, the then-assistant commandant at Ft. Huachuca (the Army’s intelligence center and interrogation school).

    A remarkable statement, and you’d think that someone would have pointed out Custer’s statement or his role, or rather investigate the role of the Army Intelligence School. But go ahead and google “Col John P. Custer” and see what you get.

    Besides myself, only Larry Siems, at the ACLU National Security Project’s Torture Report, ever mentions Custer or Ft. Huachuca.

    A little O/T, perhaps, but lately I feel like mentioning some of the stuff that continues to be sorely overlooked.

  6. EH says:

    This is a military contract giveaway before budgets start to be scrutinized in the leadup to the election. That is, before sops to OWS start trickling out. Obama has to secure both camps’ votes in order to succeed, but his priorities are with the 1% first, then re-election. The prisoners are just pawns in a business game, with an added bonus of required indefinite detention for all “suspected terrorists.”

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Bankruptcy or its real world equivalent would seem to be the goal, since it, too, disrupts normal laws and processes and allows a few to take the last resources of the many. And like bankruptcy after the “reform” act of 2005, it no longer allows a fresh start, but mandates continuing debt peonage. A win for the Social Darwinists is always a loss for everyone else.

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