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Commander: Bugs Turned Off in Guantanamo

U.S. officials never activated hidden recording devices in private areas where Guantanamo detainees conferred with their lawyers and those devices are being removed at the direction of military commission judges, said the head of U.S. Southern Command.

“It’s nonsense. No, they weren’t listened to,” Marine Gen. John Kelly told Congress in response to accusations made by defense lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees.

Kelly said the recording devices were in place, some hidden in smoke detectors, when in he took charge last November of SouthCom, which has responsibility for the facilities and staff at Guantanamo. However, Kelly said at a Wednesday House Armed Services Committee hearing that “the equipment was not energized, it was not used” to eavesdrop on the lawyers and the inmates.

Army Col. Gregory Julian, a SouthCom spokesman, later said that Kelly was speaking about his time as the SouthCom commander, and he couldn’t vouch for how the recording devices may have been used before last November.

Kelly said video recording devices would remain in the meeting areas for the protection of the defense lawyers.

“Some of these men (detainees) arguably are dangerous,” Kelly said. “I have a responsibility to protect defense attorneys as well. I think it’s prudent to keep the video cameras going.”

Kelly’s testimony, and a separate Pentagon briefing by a top coalition Afghan commander, raised questions about the treatment and ultimate fate of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo and the far larger population of detainees in U.S. custody at the Parwan Detention Facility in Afghanistan.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, met Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in another effort to arrange the postponed transfer of several hundred Afghan national prisoners from U.S. to Afghan custody, said British Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy ISAF commander.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke by phone last Saturday with Karzai. George Little, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said Hagel expected the prisoner problem to be solved this week. However, Carter said a resolution might take longer.

“It's my expectation that General Dunford is making good progress in terms of his discussions with the president [Karzai] on all of this and that we will be working towards resolution to the problem during the course of the next week or so,” Carter said of the Parwan impasse that the U.S. and the Afghans have been working on for more than a year.

For the U.S., the main concern is about 30-40 prisoners that ISAF deems to be ESTs, or “Enduring Security Threats.” The U.S. fears that the Afghans would quickly release the ESTs who would then pose an immediate threat to U.S. and allied troops.

Dunford said last week his bottom line was that “if there's a threat to the force, we will not conduct the transfer. One thing that we will do is ensure that the young men and women that are over here in harm's way are provided adequate protection. If there are people that need to be detained, we will make sure they are detained."

ISAF and Pentagon officials have repeatedly declined to say how many prisoners are being held at the Parwan facility next to the huge Bagram air base north of Kabul by the secretive U.S. Combined Joint Interagency Task 435.

The only figures provided in recent months came from the White House, which disclosed in a required report to Congress last December that “approximately 948” prisoners were in U.S. custody at Parwan.

Afghan officials have said that they will only take custody of Afghan nationals, which would leave about one-third of the prisoners thought to be foreign nationals – Pakistanis, Saudis, Yemenis and others – in a legal limbo of indefinite detention without recourse to any adjudication of the reasons for their imprisonment.

ISAF and Pentagon officials have also repeatedly declined to comment on what the U.S. intends to do with the non-Afghan prisoners after U.S. combat troops are withdrawn in 2014.

In his testimony to the House, and in a later Pentagon briefing, Kelly said he could not predict what would ultimately happen to the 166 detainees now held at Guantanamo. At least 82 have been cleared for release, but their home nations and other countries will not take them.

“I’m assuming Guantánamo will be closed someday, but if we look into the past 11 years, it was supposed to be temporary,” Kelly said. “Who knows where it’s going?”

At the House hearing, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, likened Guantanamo to the fictional “Hotel California.”

“You check in but you don’t ever check out,” he said.

The lack of any certainty on the part of the inmates “has caused them to become frustrated, and they want to get this — I think, turn the heat up, get it back in the media,” Kelly said.

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