Gitmo Status Quo: Inside the Camps, You'd Never Know Obama Is Closing The Place
Past the scowling Puerto Rican National Guard sentries and razor-wire fences, down a rutted gravel road into the heart of Guantánamo Bay's Camp Delta detention facility, Army Col. Bruce Vargo bursts with gusto into an air-conditioned double-wide trailer.
In Washington, the ink has barely dried on President Obama's order officially closing this place. But for Vargo and his legion of Gitmo guards on the Cuban waterfront, nothing has changed.
"Look, we are responsible for the safe, humane, and transparent legal care and custody of these detainees. That has not changed, all right?" Vargo says during an exclusive sit-down interview with New Times.
Vargo, an Ohio native with an old-school Army flattop and pinched, meaty features, is commander of the Joint Detention Group -- meaning he's the top dog in charge of the 245 men still being held at Guantánamo Bay.
Obama has said it will take at least a year to complete his order to empty Gitmo of prisoners. Some will be returned to their homelands, some shipped to willing European hosts, and others presumably will be tried in U.S. courts.
So Vargo is right: Nothing is likely to change in the short term for the men charged with watching these accused terrorists. But still, it's striking how little Obama's order has affected the man at the heart of the detention system."I know it sounds like I'm pushing you off," Vargo says in a boisterous drawl after repeating his stock "safe, humane care and treatment" phrase for the tenth time. "But you have to remember that we maintain the detainees, someone else does the trials, someone else decides who goes and comes. You focus on what your priorities are and your missions, and you don't let anything outside of that affect you."
Vargo, who has been running the camps since July 2007, emphatically denies that his guards have ever mistreated any prisoners, and rattles off a long list of detainee benefits he has overseen: art classes, language courses, doubled recreation time.
As for what the future holds for his detention facilities or what his guards think about Obama's orders, Vargo is living for the moment.
"Does it change me or am I upset because a policy guy has made a decision to close this place? No," he says. "This is what I tell the troops: Look at it from a bigger picture. Be very happy you live in a country where people are allowed to have their own say, to change their leaders if they don't like what's going on and they want the country to go in a different direction."