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Pentagon plans to raze Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo’s eyesore and enduring symbol of torture

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Detainees sit in a holding area while being guarded by military police at Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing, on Jan. 11, 2002. (Shane T.McCoy/ U.S. Navy/MCT)

MIAMI — The Pentagon plans to tear down Camp X-Ray, a weed-filled warren of chain-link-fence cells where the Bush administration held its first 311 war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo — and famously released a photo of kneeling captives in orange jumpsuits that stirred allegations of torture.

Detention Center commanders had said for years that the site was under a federal court protective order and could not be razed. But Justice Department attorney Andrew Warden on Monday wrote lawyers who represent Guantanamo captives that “the FBI has created an interactive, simulated three-dimensional, digital virtual tour of Camp X-Ray that shows all areas of the camp where detainees were held, interrogated, or otherwise present.” Trump administration attorneys consider it a suitable substitute.

The prison opened Jan. 11, 2002, with the arrival of the first 20 captives airlifted from Afghanistan, and the military declared it closed with the late April 2002 opening of Camp Delta.

But after it supposedly closed, one captive, a Saudi named Mohammed al Qahtani, would undergo such horrible mistreatment there that a senior Pentagon official declined to have him prosecuted as an alleged 9/11 attack conspirator because he was tortured at Camp X-Ray with sleep deprivation, growling dogs, sexual abuse, forced nudity, harsh shackling and beatings.

In addition, a Saudi captive, Ahmed al Darbi, who got to Guantanamo in March 2003, testified at a recent deposition that guards threatened him with time at Camp X-Ray for failing to cooperate with his captors.

Warden said in Monday’s email, obtained by the Miami Herald, that “Camp X-Ray operated as a detention camp for several months in 2002 and 2003. It has been vacant and unused since that time. Since its closure, Camp X-Ray’s collection of rudimentary wooden guard towers and huts, chain link fences, concrete slabs, and holding areas have significantly deteriorated. The facility sits on property that could be utilized more effectively for a number of purposes.”

He did not specify what the U.S. Navy might want to build atop the site. It is along the base’s main street, Sherman Avenue, just north of base housing in a neighborhood called Nob Hill and not far from a scrapyard. It is also south of the Northeast Gate connecting the base to Cuba, where for two hours last month Cuban military came onto the base to help Navy firefighters put out wildfires that had ignited Cuban minefields.

For years, Guantanamo military showed visiting civilian reporters the site as a fixture of media tours that boasted “safe, human, legal, transparent” detention. In January 2006, for example, an Army major took reporters visiting the base for a war court hearing through the weed-choked site and suggested that the journalists “grab some souvenir locks.”

The initial idea was to illustrate it was no longer in use in a failed bid to persuade news organizations to no longer use the prison’s most iconic photos of 20 men kneeling in a cage in orange jumpsuits, taken the day the prison opened.

In the past two years, however, successive prison camp commanders dropped the site from detention center media visits — along with the terms “legal and transparent” from its motto — declaring the site was no longer part of the story the Navy admirals in charge of the prison wanted reporters telling.

The most infamous photos of the place were taken by a Navy photographer, Petty Officer Shane T. McCoy, and released by the Department of Defense four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. And they became iconic, prompting London newspapers to call the conditions torture, in part because British men were among Camp X-Ray’s captives. All of those men are gone, and of the 41 captives at Guantanamo today, more than half arrived after the Pentagon declared Camp X-Ray closed.

Years later, McCoy told the Herald that soon after those photographs caused a stir — people looked at them and thought the captives were being tortured — he called his mother and told her his photos “had caused an international incident.” He was surprised, he said, because the photos “made sense” at the moment because of the way the men had been transported in cargo planes from Afghanistan.

Monday’s notice is the latest in a Trump administration effort to consolidate operations at the Detention Center of 41 war-on-terror captives and a staff of about 1,700 troops and civilian contractors. In August, the military tore down Camp Iguana, a prison within the prison of wooden huts where the Pentagon housed captives who had been ordered released by the courts as unlawfully detained. Then in January the prison commander, Navy Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, notified the court of his plans to demolish Camp Four, the Pentagon’s first POW-style prison at Guantanamo.

The Detention Center has also dismantled a cellblock of Camp Five and is transforming it into a health clinic and psychiatric ward for the two dozen low-value detainees held in an adjacent prison building called Camp Six. That process began in December 2016.

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