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Editorial: The Costliest Prison; Government Silent on Gitmo

From the moment the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, became the designated site to hold enemy combatants after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, obsessive secrecy has surrounded the facility. Despite some relaxation of the rules in recent years and limited exposure to visiting members of the news media, that secrecy often goes to extreme and even ridiculous lengths.

Case in point: Details about Camp 7, where about 15 so-called “high-value detainees,” including the alleged 9/11 conspirators, are held. The government claims that releasing information about the cost of building and maintaining Camp 7 would amount to an impermissible invasion of privacy — even though construction and operating costs for the rest of the detention center have been disclosed.

It is not clear exactly whose privacy is being invaded. Certainly not that of the prisoners, who live in a state of perpetual surveillance.

The issue may seem like small potatoes given the larger failure of Guantanamo to deliver justice against terrorist detainees. While the Justice Department says more than 125 people have been convicted of terrorism charges in federal courts since 2009, relatively few military commissions at Guantanamo have finished their work during that time.

Suspected al-Qaida member Abu Anas al-Libi, who was captured in a military raid in Libya this month and had been under interrogation aboard a U.S. warship, was arraigned in a federal court in New York on Tuesday. He is only the latest alleged prominent terrorist ordered to face trial in the criminal courts rather than be sent to the dysfunctional prison at Gitmo, where cases rarely come to a conclusion.

This is all the more reason to come clean about the costs of Camp 7. At a time when the government has tied itself up in knots over its authority to spend money, it would seem more relevant than ever for the public to learn how much was spent for a particular prison; or, in this case, one particular facility within a larger prison whose construction and operating costs are already known.

By the end of 2014, the Pentagon will have spent $5.242 billion in taxpayer funds on the detention facility, yet — according to a lawsuit filed by the Miami Herald — those costs do not appear to include Camp 7. Why? Obviously, including the expense associated with Camp 7 would raise the bottom-line costs, but at this point the facility already bears the dubious distinction of being “the most expensive prison on Earth,” thanks to the operating cost of $2.7 million per prisoner per year. How much worse can it be?

To make it all the more mystifying, the Pentagon’s Southern Command requested $49 million to replace Camp 7 because it “was apparently built on a seasonal streambed and its foundation is buckling.” The request was turned down by the Pentagon. Thus the public knows how much it might cost to replace Camp 7, but not the cost of the existing facility — which was apparently built on a weak foundation. Oops.

The lawsuit was filed for the sake of transparency, and only after years of trying vainly under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the facts about who built it and for how much. The government has provided no reason to explain why it claims an exemption for information about Camp 7.

We have long advocated for the closure of the entire detention center. It’s too expensive, it doesn’t work and there are better and more efficient ways to deal with detainees who deserve criminal punishment. But as long as Congress fears closing the facility, the American public has a right to know all the costs associated with keeping it open.

The Miami Herald