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US Military Wants Another Fiber-Optic Cable for Guantanamo Bay

An image reviewed by the U.S. military shows razorwire-topped fences outside of the Camp Six detention facility December 10, 2008, on U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
An image reviewed by the U.S. military shows razorwire-topped fences outside of the Camp Six detention facility December 10, 2008, on U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

MIAMI -- In the latest sign that the Pentagon is preparing for Guantanamo prison operations after President Barack Obama leaves office, the U.S. Southern Command is shopping for a second fiber-optic cable for the base -- this one from Puerto Rico. Price tag? Unknown.

A division of the Defense Department invited contractors June 8 to submit proposals to "design, manufacture, install, test and commission" a 750-mile underwater cable linking the U.S. Navy base to Puerto Rico. The work should be done, it said, 18 months after a contract is awarded. It set no projected award date.

The Defense Information System Agency said in a statement that the new underwater cable "will provide secure, high throughput, highly reliable, low latency network redundancy" for the Department of Defense "and other government communications" connecting Caribbean sites of the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command to the Department of Defense Information Network.

Southcom is in South Florida. Northcom is in Colorado. DISA would not elaborate on what "other government communications" might run between the military base and Puerto Rico. But the Obama administration has been proposing changes to its war court structure to let judges hold some hearings by teleconference between the base and United States, including to let some Guantanamo detainees plead guilty that way in civilian court.

The base's first fiber-optic line went live in January, according to the defense information agency statement.

In 2013 a retiring senior Pentagon official testified at a Guantanamo military commission hearing that the projected $40 million undersea cable between Florida and Guantanamo would have sufficient bandwidth to serve not only the base but the island of Cuba. A Southcom spokesman subsequently dismissed the idea of extending service to Cubans.

Since then, the U.S. started normalizing relations with Cuba, the Castro government renewed its call for the U.S. to evacuate Guantanamo Bay -- and the first fiber-optic cable went online at the base.

Now, Southcom's new spokeswoman says that the secondary cable is essentially meant to offer redundancy to the remote base in southeast Cuba.

"The additional cable will provide an alternate path," said Army Col. Lisa Garcia, "preventing isolation for both islands in the case of a fiber break." She would not elaborate on whether, or when, there was a break in the Florida-Guantanamo cable.

As of Tuesday, the Pentagon had 79 captives at the base's sprawling Detention Center Zone and a staff of 1,950 to 2,200 to operate it. Another 3,000 or so sailors, their families, contractors and other federal employees live on the base. In May, prison leaders described some of the discussions underway to plan for a prison in coming years. They did not mention an expanded communications infrastructure, or problems with the current cable.

For that first fiber-optic cable, the Defense Department put the projected price tag at $40 million. The contract was parceled out piecemeal, and Southcom has never put a final price tag on the Florida cable. This time Garcia would not offer a prediction on what the backup cable could cost taxpayers. "Public release of this information could taint the outcome of bidding," she said by email.

The DISA solicitation created confusion on the proposed place on Puerto Rico where the cable would originate.

It said alternately that it would go to a "government landing site on the west and southwest coast" of Puerto Rico but then identified the landing site as Punta Salinas, which is on Puerto Rico's opposite corner. The Air National Guard maintains a small facility in Punta Salinas on the northeast part of the island, near San Juan.

The Guard also has a similar facility at Punta Borinquen on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico, which would be the closest island landing site for a cable from Guantanamo. Neither DISA nor Southcom spokesmen would explain the discrepancy.

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