At a media tour of Joint Task Force Guantánamo Bay this week, reporters were escorted not through interrogation rooms or military tribunals, but through kitchens. It might make sense that the military is eager to show off what it sees as humane living conditions for the detainees, while steering attention away from Guantánamo’s legacy as a site of torture and human rights abuses. But the quotidian subject matter of food preparation and logistics provides a window into how the 16-year mission at GTMO, as it’s known in military shorthand, is settling into permanence.
According to JTF Guantánamo Commander Rear Adm. John Ring, that mission has shifted from “expeditionary” to “enduring” since President Donald Trump’s January 30 executive order mandating the continuation of detainment procedures at the military prison — a sharp contrast from former President Barack Obama’s unfulfilled campaign pledge to close it. “We were going away for eight years, and then we have a new president and our mission changed to something more enduring,” said Ring. “We have been putting Band-Aids on our infrastructure for a long time, trying to get it through the eight years until we close. And now we’re going to be enduring and stick around for a while, then we need to make some investments in infrastructure.”
To that end, a new hurricane-resistant galley that has been under construction since 2014 (under Obama, despite Ring’s insistence that “enduring” is new) is set to open on July 1, with state-of-the-art appliances for detainee halal meal prep, as well as standard meal prep to serve Joint Task Force personnel.
Forty detainees are still held at Guantánamo, some of whom have never been charged with a crime. Detainees’ food consumption has long been a contested issue – especially given that prisoners have engaged in on-and-off hunger strikes for years. At one point in 2013, 106 of the 166 detainees then at Guantánamo were on hunger strike — or engaging in what JTF euphemistically refers to as “non-religious fasting.” It’s one of many instances at Guantánamo of the rhetorical doublespeak that has enabled the legally and ethically contested detention of prisoners at the Navy base in perpetuity.
That doublespeak was particularly evident at a June 19 roundtable meeting for media with JTF leadership, during which the Task Force’s cultural adviser, Zak, a native Arabic speaker of Middle Eastern origin who doesn’t provide his last name out of concern for his family’s safety, made much of JTF’s accommodations for fasting during Ramadan. At the same time, he condemned those detainees who have gone on hunger strike or attempted suicide as “faking” in order to “discredit the United States.” This claim was difficult to square with a presentation from the chief medical officer at detention Camps V and VI, which acknowledged the practice of enteral feeding for those prisoners on hunger strike. (Former detainee Lakhdar Boumediene described the experience of being force-fed last year, writing that “a lengthy tube is jammed into your nose and snaked down your throat. You feel as though you are choking, being strangled, and yet somehow still able to breathe.” Physicians for Human Rights says the practice can amount to torture.)
When asked how one might fake a hunger strike, Zak compared detainee resistance to appeasing his parents’ demands to observe the Ramadan fast when growing up: “Just like I used to fake fasting with my parents, you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fasting,’ then you open up the fridge and eat quickly.” This claim, which Zak argued applied to all instances of hunger strikes at the base, did relate to one particular case the Miami Herald reported in November 2017. Forty-seven-year-old Pakistani national Ahmed Ghulam Rabbani was removed from forced tube feeding because, according to Trump administration lawyers, Rabbani had been cheating on his hunger strike. According to an unnamed physician overseeing “low-value” detainees like Rabbani, the forced-feeding procedure was “no longer medically indicated to preserve [Rabbani’s] life and health,” as he had been consuming a minimum of 1,200 calories per day.
Rabbani’s example, however, is very different from that of detainees who claimed last fall that JTF personnel were withholding force-feedings, in what lawyer David Remes called an intentional strategy to get them to abandon their hunger strikes. Remes, the New York Times reported, “accused the military of ‘playing chicken’ by withholding both force-feeding and medical care until the detainee was in danger of organ damage or even death.”
There were other inconsistencies in the way that different personnel portrayed the role of food on the base. Zak, for instance, was emphatic that food was never used as any kind of punishment or reward. But at the same roundtable, Ring stated that the task force continues to use meals from the base’s McDonald’s to incentivize detainees to provide information. JTF no longer carries out required interrogations of detainees – and at this point, many of them have been in so long, it’s unclear what kind of information they could provide.
For those who can’t exchange information for a Big Mac, the next best opportunity for some variety from the same food they’ve been eating for years is to demonstrate that they are “highly compliant.” Such detainees are permitted to enroll in a horticulture class, where they can cultivate an herb and vegetable garden in the recreation yard of Camp VI. Personnel asserted that gardening was but one of the detainees’ many learning opportunities that contributed to their high quality of life. During the roundtable, Joint Detention Group Commander Col. Stephen Gabavics emphasized that the meals detainees receive each day are an improvement over what conditions would be outside of the military prison, and that they are effectively better off at Guantánamo. “There are also certainly detainees here whose quality of life is better than what they had back where they were at,” he said.