Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

As Gitmo’s Camp 5 closes, the backstory of my 2003 story disclosing its existence

Today, my friend Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, who does God’s work by traveling to Guantanamo to cover every day of every pre-trial hearing in the dysfunctional military commissions system, reports that the military has closed Camp 5 and consolidated the remaining 46 regular detainees in Camp 6. (The 15 former CIA black-site high-value prisoners are housed in the secretive Camp 7).

Carol’s scoop is a bookend for my own first Gitmo scoop, 13 years ago: that the military was building Camp 5, its first permanent, concrete-walled wing of the previously ad hoc prison operation. At the time, I was working for The Miami Herald, too. Gitmo was Carol’s beat, but I had become fascinated by it during a fellowship year at Yale Law School during the 2002-03 academic year, and we often nerded out about it when I got back to Miami in June 2003. Soon after, Knight-Ridder sent her to Iraq to cover the new war there, and Carol lobbied to let me take the Gitmo beat in her absence. (In a parallel move, she let me house-sit her beachfront apartment, as I had given up my own South Beach apartment when I went up to New Haven and was not interested in signing a new lease for a reason I’ll explain below.)

Later that summer I went down for my first trip to Gitmo. On the plane, I chatted up my seatmate, who turned out to be an engineer for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, who said he was coming down for work on Camp 5. I didn’t think much of it. But when the public affairs staff gave us our introductory briefing, they talked only of Camps 1-4, the four wings of a complex called Camp Delta.

“What about Camp 5?” I asked. They professed ignorance.

Later on that trip, in an interview with the prison operation commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller (who soon after left Gitmo for a fateful trip to consult at Abu Ghraib about getting better intelligence from interrogating detainees there), I asked again. Miller wanted to know how I knew about Camp 5, and I was straightforward about it, so then he told me all about it.

Here’s the opening of the August 23, 2003, story I wrote. (Please forgive the misuse of “literally.”)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Twenty months after it opened as a short-term solution early in America’s war on terrorism, this much-criticized military detention and interrogation camp is evolving from wire mesh to concrete.

The hastily erected Camp Delta for “enemy combatants” will make a significant leap toward permanence with a previously undisclosed fifth phase that will be hard-sided and take a year to build, The Herald has learned.

Workers are also retrofitting a makeshift courtroom in case some of the 660 detainees from 42 countries, most of them suspected al Qaeda members or Taliban soldiers captured in Afghanistan, are tried before a military commission.

The developments suggest that the Bush administration is literally pouring concrete around its controversial policy of indefinitely holding alleged terrorists and supporters in legal limbo, without prisoner-of-war rights.

“[This] should exist as long as the global war on terrorism is ongoing if it helps our nation and our allies win,” said camp commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. “We are exceptionally good at developing intelligence that will help defeat the scourge of terrorism.”

Many legal scholars and human rights groups continue to argue that the policy unnecessarily bends U.S. law and undermines the stability of the Geneva Conventions when instead the existing legal system could be modified to meet intelligence security needs.

But calls to change the approach seem increasingly moot as workers throw up ever more durable structures, also including dormitory housing for 2,000 soldiers here.

The new “Camp Five” will take three times longer to build than the four existing camps, which are made from wire mesh and metal atop concrete slabs, with chain-link fences and wood towers.

“It is a hard-sided concrete building,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, we have to ship everything into Guantanamo Bay by sea, and it takes time to get the materials down here.” …

The Herald ran the story on the front page with big splashy play, and the wire services picked it up and it got attention all over the world. That was pretty cool: my previous reporting experiences were mostly limited to parochial issues like corruption in the Miami-Dade school system.

Meanwhile, I had become engaged to Luiza Chwialkowska, a Canadian reporter who had been in the same Knight Foundation fellowship program at Yale. I didn’t want to move to Canada and she didn’t want to move to Miami, so we agreed to converge on Washington, D.C., as a place where there were a lot of journalism jobs and we wouldn’t necessarily have to work for the same employer.  For awhile I thought the Miami Herald was going to send me to D.C. as its Washington correspondent, but that arrangement fell through. Luiza had already landed a job there and moved to a one-bedroom in Cleveland Park. So I had come back to Miami that summer while actively looking for a job in D.C.

Peter Canellos, then the Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, was interested in hiring me, and I was scheduled to fly to Boston to interview with Marty Baron, then its executive editor. Fortunately for me, this story came out just before I got on the plane to Boston, so I brought the hard copy and showed it to Marty in the interview as a demonstration of what sorts of stories I’d like to write for the Globe. In September, Luiza and I were married in New Haven, expecting that we’d have to live apart for an indefinite period. But during our honeymoon in Banff, I got a call from Peter saying the Globe was hiring me for its Washington bureau.

So, Camp 5.