Were Commercial Flights to Guantanamo Ended to Cut Off Coverage of Hunger Strike?


Allegations of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo have increased since Rear Admiral John W. Smith took over last June.

Allegations of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo have increased since Rear Admiral John W. Smith took over last June.

Carol Rosenberg reported yesterday that the Navy has ruled that commercial flights to Guantanamo can no longer be provided on a regular basis. The timing of this move strikes me as particularly suspect, since these flights are heavily used by defense counsel for Guantanamo detainees and a large group of these attorneys has banded together to ask newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to address the abuse charges prisoners have cited in instituting a widespread hunger strike at the prison. Guantanamo officials deny that a hunger strike is taking place.

From Rosenberg’s report:

The Guantánamo Navy commander is halting commercial air passenger service from South Florida to the remote outpost in southeast Cuba, invoking a federal regulation that the Pentagon had apparently waived for years.

Fort Lauderdale-based IBC Travel said Friday that it will cease its several times a week service to and from the base after April 5, on an order from Navy Capt. John “JR” Nettleton to discontinue service by May 1. It will continue weekly cargo flights to the base, said IBC spokesman Richard Rose, with permission from Nettleton.


The small shuttles that carry about 20 passengers had been a vital air bridge to Guantánamo, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court gave attorneys access to the prisoners in August 2004.

Isn’t it interesting that the Navy would end the waiver that allowed passenger flights but they still elect to maintain the waiver for cargo flights? The attorneys have been especially busy of late, as accusations of improper treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo have begun to accelerate again. The attorneys maintain that a hunger strike has been going on for over a month and that over 100 prisoners are taking part. Guantanamo officials dismiss the bulk of those claims:

Attorneys for detainees long-held without charges at the U.S military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, assert that a general hunger strike involving many of the 166 detainees who remain incarcerated there has entered its second month.

But the U.S. military strongly denies that claim, calling it “a fabrication,” and instead says only 14 detainees are actively engaged in hunger strikes detrimental to their health.

In a letter of concern sent to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday, a group of 51 detainee attorneys wrote, “at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels.” The Pentagon said it was aware of the letter but declined to discuss it.


“That there is any concrete, mass hunger strike — that is an utter fabrication,” Breasseale said. “Some who claim to be hunger striking are in fact eating handfuls of trail mix, nuts, and other food. They are taking in plenty of calories.”

Interestingly, Defense Department spokesman Todd Breasseale claims that Guantanamo is following the US Bureau of Prisons protocol for handling hunger strikers, but the document describing the protocol linked to the CBS News account seems to differ from Breasseale’s claims. In the document (pdf) we have this:

6. [DEFINITION §549.61. As defined in this rule, an inmate is on a hunger strike:

a. When he or she communicates that fact to staff and is observed by staff to be refraining from eating for a period of time, ordinarily in excess of 72 hours; or

b. When staff observe the inmate to be refraining from eating for a period in excess of 72 hours. When staff consider it prudent to do so, a referral for medical evaluation may be made without waiting 72 hours.]

The CBS News article cites multiple attorneys who have had discussions with multiple prisoners who have announced they are on hunger strikes and have missed many meals, lost consciousness from low blood sugar and have lost as much as one third of their body weight. That is in direct contradiction to Breasseale’s claims that these prisoners are taking in enough calories through handfuls of trail mix.

The attorneys wrote a letter to Chuck Hagel on March 14. From the letter (pdf):

As detailed in our March 4, 2013 letter, we understand that the hunger strike was precipitated by widespread searches of detainees’ Qur’ans—perceived as religious desecration—as well as searches and confiscation of other personal items, including family letters and photographs, and legal mail, seemingly without provocation or cause. We also understand that these searches occurred against a background of increasingly regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months, which our clients have described as a return to an older regime at Guantánamo that was widely identified with the mistreatment of detainees. Indeed, the conditions being reported by the men appear to be a significant departure from the way in which the prison has operated over the past several years. No doubt as well, numerous detainees, including 86 detainees who have been cleared for transfer by President Obama’s Inter-Agency Guantánamo Task Force, are feeling hopeless in the face of 11 years of detention without prospect of release or trial and the continuing inability of the political branches to carry through on their commitment to close the prison in a just manner.

We understand that most of the men in Camp 6, which holds the largest number of detainees at Guantánamo, have been on hunger strike since February 6 to protest these practices. We have also received alarming reports of detainees’ deteriorating health, including that men have lost over 20 and 30 pounds, and that at least two dozen men have lost consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, which have dropped to life-threatening levels among some. The information we have reported has been corroborated by every attorney who has visited the base or communicated with their client since February. According to medical experts, irreversible cognitive impairment and physiological damage such as loss of hearing, blindness, and hemorrhage may begin to occur by the 40th day of a hunger strike, and death follows thereafter. We would think officials charged with the care of detainees would consider these events urgent and gravely concerning; instead, JTF-GTMO officials have yet to offer any response other than to brush aside the reports by detainee counsel as “falsehoods.”

Recall also that before the searches of prisoners’ goods, there was this event in January, as the CBS News article reminds us:

On Jan. 2, a Guantanamo guard fired a rubber crowd-dispersal round from a tower into a group of detainees in the fenced-in recreation area of Camp Six.

So why are things suddenly so much worse in how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo? One reason may be that there is a new commander in charge of the facility. Rear Admiral John W. Smith, Jr. took over Guantanamo last June. His ascension to power coincides very well with the rash of mistreatment allegations. I see nothing in his biography indicating previous experience in detentions (although he does have Cyber Force experience–hello, OCA interruption of trial broadcast!), so the question becomes whether the new abuses are his idea or have been carried out by detention “specialists” to who he has delegated authority. At the very least, the change in leadership is clearly correlated with the current deplorable treatment of detainees which the attorneys described as “increasingly regressive practices at the prison taking place in recent months” and a “return to an older regime”. That sounds to me as though the attorneys blame the change in regime to Smith being in control for the deterioration in prisoner treatment.

11 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Note also that the guard force changed earlier this year from a Navy guard force to an Army guard force. An Army guard fired the shotgun round and also Army guards tossed the detainees’ cells. IIRC, Rosenberg reported this a week or two ago. The collective tenor of the reports on guard behavior are that the regime became much more abusive after the Army came in.

  2. klynn says:

    So, if I were the ICRC perhaps I might mention this at the UNHRC…We have led sanctions against other countries for less.

  3. JTMinIA says:

    Pet-peeve alert

    You write that the change in leadership at Guantanamo is “clearly correlated” with the recent bad treatment, hunger strikes, etc. But you’ve only got two observations: before Smith arrived vs after Smith arrived. Well, no matter what happened, two observations will always produce a +1 or -1 “correlation” unless your measure is so imprecise that you find absolutely no difference in treatment to the umpteenth decimal place. Furthermore, you cannot evaluate the reliability of this “correlation” since an N of 2 has zero degrees of freedom.

    In short: you have a coinky-dink, not a correlatiion. Maybe you were using “correlation” in a loose and non-technical way, but that’s the beauty of pet peeves; they can be petty.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    Important to keep reporting this, so thank, Jim.

    Government authorities appear to want to do even more to cut off Guantanamo from the eyes and ears of the world. The attorneys are the window into that world, and the shutting down of the flights would seem to affect them the most (along with the press).

    The changeover to Army guards from Navy guards, and the selection of a new camp commander (and most of them, btw, have had little detention experience, so Smith is no novelty there) only begs the question as to why the regime should be cracking down now. — Hiding the truth about the hunger striking and the underlying repression is the most likely cause, but I can think of some other convergent causes as well.

    In terms of things that have happened recently, you forgot to mention the death last fall of Adnan Latif, purportedly of suicide by overdose, complicated by pneumonia (though he had been “medically cleared” less than 48 hours before his death). According to anonymous statements reported by Jason Leopold and others, the government is going to claim that SOPs were not followed correctly in Latif’s case. That would have to point to both guards and to medical personnel. (The Army guards had already replaced the Navy guards at the time of Latif’s death, FWIW.)

    It is clear that the world is not to have access to whomever is left at Guantanamo. Even Latif’s body was held until its masses had liquified, kept in an AF hanger in Germany, before being returned to Yemen, where a doctor reportedly said it was too decomposed for a second autopsy. (I think tests could still have been done on certain aspects of his death, but never mind…)

    The Obama administration counts on the quiescence of the American Congress and electorate when it comes to Guantanamo. They are not mistaken, unfortunately. But, they are not omnipotent, either, and they know, or should know that political atmospheres can change sometimes as quickly as the weather itself.

    The truth will come out, but how long will it take?

  5. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Apparently the regulation forbids “regular passenger service”, so charters are still okay.

    In fact, I’d say that there are a number of US airlines that could pick up that route, since their “service” would not count as “regular”.

  6. peasantparty says:

    Thanks, Jim.

    I think there are several reasons for the flight and branch changes.

    I also think that the administration is having to guess at what the public’s reaction to the Iraq war anniversary will be.

  7. H. Candace gorman says:

    Sorry just geting around to commenting on this important Development. Just a reminder that the new regime at gitmo also tried in the fall to cut off attorney access to those detainees who lost their habeas case. Judge lamberth shut them down and they filed a notice of appeal but apparently the solicitors office did not approve the appeal and it was withdrawn. In the 8 years that I have been representing men at the base this past year has been the worst as far as attempt after attempt to shut the attorneys out while at the same time provoking the men. Shutting down our major access to the base will mean more legal battles and I believe in the end we will prevail — but at what cost? The men are starving themselves in protest to being held for 11 years without charge. And of course they can’t be charged because being Muslim is not against the law here( yet) and that is the only thing the vast majority are guilty of…..

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