How Guantanamo Bay Became the Place the U.S. Keeps Detainees

A former Marine looks back on his tenure commanding the now-infamous U.S. Naval base.
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The Northeast Gate at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

I took command of the Marine Corps Security Force Company aboard United States Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay on August 29, 2001. Guantanamo Bay was familiar to me -- I had deployed there in 1993 as a young lieutenant to help with the care and security of over 13,000 Haitian emigrants plucked from the Caribbean Sea. Essentially an idyllic small town, the tight-knit community welcomed me and my family with ceremony and a fair amount of celebrity, the proper formality for the senior Marine, but something to which I was personally unaccustomed. I was a big fish in a little pond, though fairly junior in rank.

A short fourteen days after taking command, still getting oriented to the demands of the job, I watched on CNN as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center. Immediately grasping the significance of the act, I turned to my second-in-command, John Griffin. "We’re at war,” I said. Those words were to prove prophetic, and this sleepy little corner of Cuba was about to play a key role in the coming conflict.

How did Guantanamo Bay, a small military base that was for Fidel Castro “a dagger plunged into the Cuban soil,” become what Donald Rumsfeld later declared “The Least Worst Place” for a detention facility?

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The Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay has garnered significant attention since September 2001, but its significance in Western history began long before modern America. Christopher Columbus touched down in Guantanamo Bay in 1494, on his second voyage to the New World, searching unsuccessfully for gold. Despite the explorer’s disappointment, the discovery of the protected bay opened it as a safe haven for pirates and British Navy alike in the years that followed.

America’s interest came later, during the Spanish-American War in 1898, when a battalion of 647 Marines landed at Guantanamo Bay and tied down 7,000 Spanish troops in Guantanamo City, thus protecting Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill 40 miles to the west. Like the British Navy before it, the U.S. Navy found the bay's protected waters useful, and in the treaty of 1903, the Cuban government agreed to lease defined areas around Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for use as a naval station. This was the beginning of the oldest U.S. overseas base, and the only one (to eventually be) on Communist soil.

Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, the initial lease enabled the US to contribute to the defense of Cuba through the maintenance of “coaling and naval stations.” A key element of this agreement was the passing to the United States of "complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas." The only restrictions on the United States were that the area be used only as a coaling and naval station, and vessels engaged in trade with Cuba would retain free passage through the bay encompassed by the reservation. A subsequent agreement, signed by President Roosevelt on October 2, 1903, expanded on the initial lease, stipulating, among other things, a rent of two thousand dollars in gold each year, and that fugitives from Cuban justice, fleeing to the U.S. reservation, would be returned to Cuban authorities.

In the run up to World War II, the base expanded greatly. The stable acoustic conditions for echo ranging made the sea areas close to Guantanamo Bay ideal for training ships’ crew in anti-submarine warfare, and deploying convoys to the Southern Atlantic. Post-WWII, the Fleet Training Group was established to train Navy units, and the excellent amphibious training opportunities provided by adjacent islands led to staging of the 1st Marine Division at the Naval base. The Fleet Training Group was the bane of many a sailor -- the Navy’s version of finals and the SAT rolled into one. Liberty in town was a welcome respite for sailors who spent long tours underway, training under the demanding and often career-ending eye of the Fleet Training Group.The agreement, later confirmed by the Treaty of 1934 between the United States and Cuba, in effect gives the United States a perpetual lease on this reservation, capable of being voided only by our abandoning the area or by mutual agreement between the two countries. After taking power, Castro refused to recognize the treaty that established the base. He also refused to cash any of the U.S. checks after the Bay of Pigs Incident in 1961. The Castro government maintains that the perpetual lease provision of the Treaty of 1934 for the base is illegal.

That off-base liberty came to an abrupt end with the kidnapping, on June 27, 1958, of 29 Sailors and Marines by Cuban rebel forces under Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, six months before they gained victory over the Batista government. Through diplomatic efforts, the hostages were released 21 days later, uninjured. During the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis that followed Castro’s ascent to power, tensions between the U.S. and Cuba soared.  The events led to the United States’ decision to establish at Guantanamo Bay a permanent base of Marines augmented with artillery, tanks, and attack aircraft. Defensive lines of fortifications and obstacles were constructed in order to slow the possible advance of Cuban forces while civilians and non-combatants could be evacuated and the base reinforced from the U.S.

But, as we know, that attack never came. When the Fleet Training Group departed in 1994-95, much of the base’s usefulness to the Navy evaporated. Some felt much of what the base provided could be shifted to Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico or naval bases state-side. The Navy’s response to the reduced usefulness of Guantanamo was a program called Minimum Pillar Performance or MPP. For the Navy, it meant the base was in a caretaker status, with only the barest of resources to maintain the provisions of the 1934 treaty. The treaty would be the bedrock -- under pressure from the Department of State, the Navy would not reduce the base beyond its ability to comply with the treaty's tenets. As early as 1996, discussions were ongoing within the Marine Corps about the elimination or reduction of the position in Guantanamo -- a natural continuation of the Gulf War downsizing. These internal conversations centered on the perception of a non-existent threat from the Cuban forces arrayed around the base. These forces, ostensibly to counter the U.S. presence, actually served the primary purpose of stopping Cuban asylum seekers.

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I arrived at a base with less than 1,000 military personnel, gutted from its heyday population, during the Fleet Training Group days, of more than 10,000. At one time, the base had been the center of the U.S. Navy’s training program for the Atlantic Fleet. Now, Guantanamo was manned at half strength and minimally funded.

The Marine force numbered 118 strong, much smaller than the Marine Barracks, and used rotating, temporarily attached units rather than permanently stationed forces. The majority of my time was spent stretching the available troops to ensure the external security of the base and dealing with dilapidated infrastructure. The U.S. side of the fenceline was in a state of disrepair prior to 9/11. The chain link fence that demarcated the base boundaries, a requirement of the 1934 treaty, was in some locations less than five feet high. In other spots, the fence leaned at a 35-degree list, with a foot of unobstructed clearance between the bottom of the fence and the ground due to erosion. Marine sentries manned observation posts, called MOPs (Marine Observation Posts), around the perimeter of the base. A crushed coral road that ran adjacent to much of the fenceline was pocked with significant potholes and runnels from water runoff; the road condition presented a constant challenge to the Marines who patrolled the fenceline in Humvees 24 hours a day. Vehicle accidents were frustratingly frequent.

At one time, the physical barrier surrounding the base was bolstered by one of the largest minefields in the free world and guarded by the Marine Ground Defense Security Force, a battalion-sized force augmented with tanks and artillery. In 1999, however, a presidential directive ordered the removal of all mines by the end of the year. Though the mines were subsequently removed, the minefields, or areas marked as minefields with restricted access, remain. While I pressed my boss to designate the minefields free of mines, he demurred. Each successive commanding officer has been understandably reluctant to sign the minefield de-certification paperwork left in the inbox by his predecessor and assume the legal exposure of designating those areas safe and absent or “proofed” of mines.

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Scott Packard is a writer based in California, and a former officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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