WASHINGTON - As much as $170 million is needed to improve facilities for the troops stationed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center that President Barack Obama has marked for extinction, the top U.S. commander in South and Central America said Wednesday.
The head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly, told the House Armed Services Committee that upgrades to buildings including barracks and the dining hall for the American personnel assigned to the joint task force at the U.S. base in Cuba are badly needed. He described the living conditions at Guantanamo as not quite squalor but "pretty questionable."
"We need to take care of our troops," Kelly said.
Kelly also said, though, that the detainees are living in humane conditions. He attributed a hunger strike that has grown to 25 detainees to frustration among prisoners over the failure to close Guantanamo. The hunger strike has become the largest and most sustained protest at Guantanamo in several years.
Obama had pledged to shutter the prison at Guantanamo soon after taking office but Congress opposed it, passing a law that prohibits the government from transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil and requiring security guarantees before they can be sent elsewhere in the world.
Kelly told the committee that the facilities at Guantanamo were designed as temporary structures and never intended to last as long as they have. The prison opened on the base in January 2002.
"These are things that we have to do right now," Kelly said of the repairs. "I'm assuming Guantanamo will be closed someday. But if you look at the past 11 years when it was supposed to be temporary, who knows where it's going."
Kelly said none of the projects are aimed at improving the "lifestyle" of the detainees. But the improvements will increase security and improve the ease of movement for the detainees, which will benefit the guards by making their jobs less complicated, he said.
Kelly also said there's a proposed project to replace one of the facilities where "special detainees" are housed. But he declined to discuss details of the project.
The general estimated the price tag for the repairs at between $150 million to $170 million. Construction work at Guantanamo is expensive, he said, because of the base's remote location and lack of local labor.
"So a 10-penny nail costs 20 cents," Kelly said. "Everything's more expensive."
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee's top Democrat, raised concerns over the medical care for the 166 detainees at the prison. They are getting older, Smith said, and may soon require better medical care than is available at Guantanamo.
"And as the law stands now, and we have an inmate who has a heart attack, doesn't die, but needs more complicated care, where's he going to get it in Guantanamo?" Smith said. "He's not. And that opens up all kinds of implications in terms of human rights violations and problems that we would have with our own laws, as well as with international laws."
Kelly said there's a small naval hospital on Guantanamo that detainees have complete access to. He said he's received advice from the office of the Pentagon's general counsel that "we're within the law so long as they have access - immediate access to any and all medical care on-island."
Over the past few weeks, as lawyers returned from Guantanamo with accounts of clients weak from hunger and an angry standoff with guards, the military had said no more than a handful of prisoners met the definition of being on hunger strike, which includes missing nine consecutive meals.
As of Wednesday, there were 25 hunger strikers, with eight receiving feeding tubes, according to Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center. That's an increase of 11 since last Friday.
During his testimony, Kelly said the detainees "had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed" and were devastated when Obama said nothing about the facility in his inauguration speech or State of the Union speech.
But lawyers who have represented Guantanamo prisoners said the protest began in early February when a relatively new officer in charge of camp operations, Army Col. John Bogdan, ordered an intensive search of the communal pod-like area where a majority of detainees are held. Guards confiscated personal items such as family letters, photos and mail from attorneys. The prisoners also said government-issued Qurans were searched in a way they considered religious desecration.
Speaking later to Pentagon reporters, Kelly said the hunger strikes were an attempt to get attention and that officials were watching to see if the detainees were eating. While they may be refusing meals, some also had access to food and snacks in a common area where they were being detained.
"We also know they're eating when they're in the cell," Kelly said, adding that it's "their attempt at some level of resistance or to demonstrate their displeasure at what's going on."
Kelly also denied any suggestion that Qurans were being mishandled.
"No way has a Quran in any way shape or form been in any way abused or mistreated. So their claims are nonsense," he told reporters. He said the only people who touch the Qurans are translators or others who are Islamic in their beliefs.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, contributed to this report.