DoD News Briefing: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ATSD PA with General Barry McCaffrey, CINCSO
Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.
General McCaffrey will brief on the record. He has to leave at 15 after, so we'll have to end it at exactly that time.
General McCaffrey: I thought what I might do is give you a quick overview of what we're going to do in what we've entitled OPERATION SAFE PASSAGE, which is the safe, secure, and dignified movement of the Cuban migrants that are now in four camps in Panama back to Guantanamo. We have to accomplish this to satisfy the agreement with the Republic of Panama by 6 March. So, we, over the past several weeks, have brought in additional forces and have done an enormous amount of planning in an attempt to be able to carry that out in a proper manner.
I've got some graphics here that may or may not be of use to you that give you an idea on physically what the setup of the migrant operation is.
It's over on the other side of the canal from Panama City. Four camps. Each originally had about 2,500 Cuban migrants in it. Then, in addition, in that general area we've had an Air Force hospital, a field hospital, the camp headquarters. This whole complex had some 9,000 Cuban migrants in it.
The airfield that we'll move these people from is Howard Air Force Base in the Republic of Panama. We'll be moving them with a combination of C-141 military aircraft and also contract air. Finally, I've given you a quick indication that we, throughout this operation -- we've had a family support center and a joint information center. So that the Cuban migrants, the entire time that we've had them under our care, have had access to the international press and have had access to visitors -- whether their own family members or people out of the Republic of Panama.
Let me just characterize briefly what I think the situation is now. When we first received these people in August, we were quite fortunate. We had two weeks to plan the effort, so we brought in the air security police, the Air Force hospital and other forces required to do this in a proper way. By the time we close it down, it will have been about a $40 million operation.
Our notion when they arrived was that we would treat these people with the same compassion and care with which our grandparents had been welcomed here to the United States from Ghana, Guatemala, Estonia or Ireland. So the whole notion was when they got off an Air Force plane, their first contact with U.S. Armed Forces was to be hugged by a volunteer, either U.S. or Panamanian, and they went into a system where they never saw a gun or a club. We had a remarkable sense of identification between the migrants and the U.S. Armed Forces that took care of them.
That was marred by the outburst of violence on the 7th of December. The overwhelming majority of these migrants did not take part in that violence. My guess is perhaps as many as 1,500 did. It was a surprise to us. We had no idea that they would be capable of that level of violence, although we clearly understood their growing frustration and anxiety over their own inability to achieve their purpose.
The situation right now in the camps, we think, is generally stable and positive. They understand the U.S. policy. They understand we're going to move them back. We think we have dealt with their concerns. We sent a committee of Cuban migrants from Panama to Guantanamo to see the surroundings into which they would move. We brought a committee from Guantanamo back to meet the consejo -- the advisers in Panama -- so that they'd have an understanding of what they would encounter. We are, generally speaking, confident we can carry this out in a safe and responsible manner. That's the notion we're working on.
I would like to not specifically say when it's going to begin. We will notify all the migrants in advance of the movement so that we can, again, reduce their sense of uncertainty. And we will try and accomplish it all well before our announced goal of 6 March.
What are your questions?
Q: You talked about "to do it with dignity", but you're still going to have to take fairly extraordinary security precautions as you move them. You're going to have to search everybody, you've got guard posts all along the road, you've got... Can you run through what you've had to do since December 7 when you realized you're going to have to move this many people by airplane?
A: Today, by the way, in Panama, we're having a media day in which we're going to try and walk the interested media through every aspect of this and show them on the ground what our plans are. We have brought in a considerable number of forces. There are roughly 5,000 U.S. military personnel involved in this movement, and we have gone through each of these possible contingencies which could threaten the safety or well-being of either the migrants or the U.S. forces involved. In each case, we tried to come up with prudent ways to handle the problem.
However, again, our intention is not to have this be a forced movement. It will be carried out in a manner in which -- for the overwhelming majority of Cuban migrants -- it will be a normal air movement. They'll have boxed up their own belongings. They'll be allowed to take aboard carry-on luggage. But obviously, our concern is to ensure that we protect their own safety and also the viability of the flight itself. So they won't have any articles that we think would pose a hazard to the air crew or the safety of the flight.
Q: Such as what?
A: Obviously, we'll look for contraband articles -- anything that could be construed as a weapon, any flame-producing device, et cetera. But by and large, these are a bunch of good people. There are carpenters, electricians, school teachers, army officers, dentists, doctors. The great majority of them did not take part in any violent acts against us. We admire them, and we respect their dignity as people. That's the way we'll carry out the operation.
Q: What about the recent incidents of attempted suicide? Can you update us as to the latest figures regarding that?
A: We've had a considerable number of suicide gestures. We're extremely sensitive to this possibility. We've had what we consider 12 actual suicide attempts. Thank God, none have been successful. The Cuban migrants are looking out for one another, and we are giving it a great deal of attention.
The environment in the camps, now, understand... They have access to the international media. We took all the human rights groups there to see the camps. They have telephones. They can call out. They can receive visitors. The schools are operating for their children. There are churches active in the camps. So I've got to underscore... We're very proud of the environment in which they're living, but we're looking out for possible suicide attempts.
Q: You mentioned the access they have had to friends, to relatives, to visits aside from the media. What about those at Guantanamo, of course, who have not had that opportunity? Might there be some change in the future that might allow for that? To help with the clear uncertainty?
A: You will have access, I think, to a follow-on briefing about the Guantanamo situation. But tremendous efforts have gone into improving the situation in Guantanamo. Money, thinking, and we're confident... As I say, we sent some of our migrants over there to look into the situation and then come back and explain to the group what the conditions were. Sure, there's some anxiety, but they understand, I think, that they're not going to a bad situation.
Q: The 1500 that you mentioned took part in the violence in December. Are they also going to be moved? Are they going to be kept in special camps in Guantanamo? How are they going to be?
A: I used 1500 as a loose number. There are a couple of hundred of them who we have documented acts of criminal violence against members of the U.S. Armed Forces. I use that number as sort of a rough approximation. Most of them we have segregated from the remainder of the camp population. We've pulled together a list of particulars on their behavior that we felt constituted a violation of the human rights of our Military Forces. They will be moved separately from the remainder of the population. And Guantanamo, I'm sure, will take measures designed to protect the Cuban migrant population from these people.
We feel pretty good about that. A couple of hundred, roughly, with documented criminal acts out of 9,000. There are some 60 more who have some form of emotional illness. Psychotic behavior or whatever. We're handling them differently under medical procedures -- moving them.
Q: Will extraordinary measures for security be taken with them? And if so, please characterize.
A: We actually went to the U.S. Federal Marshal's Service and asked for some tutorial advice on how to move folks and ensure that they could not harm themselves or others, and we're taking all those measures. The standard measures that are used by the U.S. Federal Marshal service to move U.S. citizens so that they can't harm themselves.
Q: Will these several hundred be moved by air or will they be moved by ship? And will they be on the front end of your movement, or come interspersed with your movement?
A: We examined all those options and have decided to move them by air, and in small increments, but they'll be moved separately from the remainder of the population.
Q: Does that mean they'll be in handcuffs and leg irons and then put in...
A: They will, indeed.
Q: Do they go into a special prison within GTMO?
A: We have nobody in prison. We have segregated -- separated -- those Cuban migrants from the remainder of the population who are a threat to other Cubans or our own Forces. So I am sure that Guantanamo will take measures to ensure that they are not a threat in that area also.
Q: You said sure, they have anxiety, but they understand they're not going into a bad situation. For many of them, returning to Guantanamo is a bad situation. Without a change in U.S. policy regarding their future, why should they not regard this as a disastrous situation for them -- this move?
A: I understand and support U.S. policy on this subject, but on the other hand I'm the wrong person to ask about it. Our job is quite simple -- to safely and with dignity and efficiently move these migrants, and to try and address exactly those anxieties. You're quite right. Your question's right on the mark: to try and reduce their concerns about their future -- and we think we're doing pretty well with that -- but they're not happy about it. You're exactly right.
Q: What percentage of people on a 737 would be security personnel, and will they be armed?
A: If you allow me -- the exact security procedures aboard these aircraft-- it probably would enhance the safety of all those concerns if I didn't outline them deliberately. But in every case for every type aircraft, we have taken measures to protect their safety.
The use of firearms aboard a U.S. aircraft is not a good idea. You can sort of rule that piece of it out. But we think what we've done is we can protect everybody's safety on the flight.
Q: Will the Cubans find the conditions at Guantanamo superior to what they're leaving behind in Panama?
A: Gosh, I'm the wrong person to ask. I have a reconnaissance group that have gone to Guantanamo, to include the Cuban migrants. I think the conditions in Guantanamo will be safe. They'll have first rate medical care, nutrition needs, they'll be treated with dignity. We are trying to ensure that the educational programs that we've started in Panama -- we've got some first rate Vo-Tech training, that kind of thing to keep them engaged while they've been in Panama -- will continue in Guantanamo. That's, by the way, been a Department of Justice program, and the UNHCR and the government of Panama have all helped us put those together. So we'll make sure those programs are moved to Guantanamo.
Q: Is your $22.5 million the cost of this movement?
A: That's to date, I guess.
A: That's an odd number, isn't it? That's the cost of the operation at camp to date. By the time we're done with it all, it should be $40 million.
Q: Do you have a figure on the cost of the transfer and the daily or weekly or monthly operation to date at Guantanamo?
A: I don't, indeed, but I'm sure we can get that information for you.
Q: Have you said yet how many people will be leaving to begin with on the first flight, and if you're taking volunteers, and what the mix will be?
A: That's a good question. We will move about 500 a day on five aircraft, roughly 100 people per aircraft. There will be days where we won't move people -- on Sundays, for example -- and we're trying to ensure that at both ends of this movement -- both at Guantanamo and in Panama -- that the procedures are adequate to handle the flow.
Q: How do you decide who goes on the first flight?
A: We have an order of movement that we have gone through, and we're going to essentially close out Camp 4, then 3 then 2, then 1. We're moving by blocks. But throughout this period, we've tried to keep family units together, for example. So there's been a certain logic inside a camp as to how you live. You live with -- have bonded with -- friends and families, and we think it's very important that they move and continue to stay in that kind of association.
We've had special forces sergeants, one per 250 migrants, throughout this period that have lived and worked and been the brother/uncle/friend of their group of migrants. And those sergeants will move with these aircraft flights to ease that sense of transition, have a sense of continuity.
Q: What instructions do the troops have that are actually moving these people if someone resists?
A: We have two documents you're certainly welcome to look at. One are the rules of engagement for our Armed Forces; and the second document is a Cuban migrant Bill of Rights that we drew up. We've discussed all this sort of thing.
Our rules of engagement, by and large, say we will accomplish the mission. We're going to move these people prior to 6 March. There's no question about that. And we're going to do it in a safe and dignified manner. And we will preserve the life of all those involved. Our intention is that no one -- Cuban nor American -- lose their lives out of this operation. We're pretty confident we can do that.
Q: The question is, what if someone resists? What are the rules of engagement?
A: There are a series of potential situations, each one of which we have written down, and have come up with a probable response. We have equipment in place and we have trained for literally thousands of hours on how to handle each type situation.
Now, at the end of the day, we've got some first-rate staff sergeants in the United States Army and their equivalent in the Air Force security police. There's a Marine company involved, some Navy elements involved. Our company commander and battalion commander level officers are going to sort these situations out and do the right thing on the spot. So it's a series of hypothetical situations you could ask me about.
Q: What equipment are you bringing with you?
A: Essentially we have a series of non-lethal measures to take to address problems should they arise. Let me underscore, if I can, and I know the nature of your question. We don't anticipate violence or massive resistance, but we have certainly talked about it and what we'll do if we encounter it.
Q: Can you tell me what the non-lethal measures are?
A: Well, it would range from picking you up and putting you on the plane, to responding with appropriate force to meet a violent response.
Q: Do you have stun guns and that sort of thing?
A: We do, indeed. We have pepper spray, CS, tasers. But our preferred method will be to explain carefully what they're going to encounter, to ask them to do it. And we anticipate the overwhelming majority will do just that.
Q: But you'll explain to them that you have all these things in case they are hesitant?
A: My first sergeant when I was a platoon leader told me -- and I've never forgotten it -- never threaten anybody. Just tell people you'll take appropriate action. So we have not, in any way, threatened these people who are under our care and who have our admiration. I mean that quite seriously. These are good people who are under our care, and we intend to move them in a safe and humane manner.
Q: Do your rules of engagement at any point forbid the use of deadly force?
A: I've given instructions... We have hostage rescue teams standing by. We have the capability to respond to anything. If someone had a weapon, took a hostage, if there is a threat to human life -- Cuban or American -- we will take any measure required to preserve life.
Q: Does all this start Wednesday?
A: That normally works on an infantry officer, I know. (Laughter)
Q: You said earlier that...
A: I prefer to not announce directly the day it will begin.
Q: ...February 1st?
A: Why don't you assume that Wednesday is a good call on your part? I'm not sure it's really all that sensitive. We want to make sure the Cubans know everything... They listen very intently to all the news media, so we try and tell them everything we're telling you so they hear it the same time.
Q: Your area of command includes Ecuador and Peru?
Q: The Ecuadorians say that the Peruvians are using American helicopters which were sent there for the (inaudible) operation. Can you comment on that, or on the whole situation in general?
A: The U.S. Armed Forces support the Department of Defense and Department of State in addressing regional problems. The United States is a neutral guarantor of the Rio Treaty. We view with enormous anguish this issue that affects these two democratic countries. I can categorically tell you there is no U.S. equipment -- drug equipment, helicopters, CH-47s -- being used by either side. We will maintain a neutral stance in this entire process.
Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk to you. Good luck