GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba Somewhere amid the cactus-studded hills on this sprawling Navy base, separate from the cells where hundreds of men suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban have been locked up for years, is a place even more closely guarded a jailhouse so protected that its very location is top secret.
For the first time, the top commander of detention operations at Guantanamo has confirmed the existence of the mysterious Camp 7. In an interview with The Associated Press, Rear Adm. Mark Buzby also provided a few details about the maximum-security lockup.
Guantanamo commanders said Camp 7 is for key alleged al-Qaida members, who must be kept apart from other prisoners to prevent them from retaliating against long-term detainees who have talked to interrogators. They also want the location kept secret for fear of terrorist attack.
Many operations have been classified since the detention center opened in January 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. More than four years passed before the military released even the names of detainees held on this 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba and it did so only after the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
Detainees have been held in Camp Echo and Camps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Journalists cleared by the military have been allowed to tour some of these lockups, where 260 men are held, but aren't allowed to speak to detainees. Some lawmakers and other VIPs have passed through, and the International Red Cross has access but doesn't divulge details of visits with prisoners.
Camp 7, where 15 "high-value detainees" are held, is so secret that its very existence was not publicly known until it was mentioned in December by attorneys for Majid Khan, a former Baltimore resident who allegedly plotted to bomb gas stations in the United States. Previously, many observers believed the 15 were being held in Camps 5 or 6, which are maximum-security facilities.
"Under the gag order ... we are prohibited from saying anything more about their camp," lawyer Gitanjali Gutierrez, who met with Khan in October, said Tuesday. Most of the lawyers' notes and memos have been stamped "top secret" by the government.
Buzby told the AP he is sharply limiting to a "very few" the number of people who know Camp 7's whereabouts.
He described it as a maximum security facility that was already built when President Bush announced in September 2006 that 14 high-value terrorism suspects had been transferred from CIA secret detention facilities to Guantanamo. An additional detainee, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, arrived last April.
"They went straight into that facility," Buzby said.
Buzby, who heads all military detention operations on Guantanamo, said he controls Camp 7 but would not discuss whether the CIA might still be talking with the high-value detainees.
Paul Rester, the military's chief interrogator at Guantanamo, told AP he has been interviewing one of the Camp 7 detainees and that others may be interrogated, depending on intelligence needs.
But other key military commanders on the base have been told to leave Camp 7 to others.
"Not everybody, even within the Joint Task Force, has access or even knowledge of where Camp 7 is," said Army Col. Bruce Vargo. As commander of the military's Joint Detention Group at Guantanamo, Vargo is responsible for the camps holding 260 detainees. But not for Camp 7.
Red Cross representatives have visited Camp 7 and all the other detention facilities at Guantanamo, confirmed Geoff Loane, head of the humanitarian organization's delegation in Washington. He declined to give details.
Buzby said the 15 are kept isolated in part to protect other prisoners. "Detainees have told us a lot of things about this group of people, and if there were potential for retribution it would be a very, very dangerous situation," he said.
For his part, Vargo said he is preoccupied by the possibility of an al-Qaida attack on Guantanamo.
"Although we are trying to be open, security is paramount," he said. "I mean, if you can fly a plane into the towers, you can attack Guantanamo if that's what you choose to do. It's something I think about on a day-to-day basis."
Vargo declined to discuss whether the U.S. has received information that al-Qaida may be planning such an attack. "We have intelligence reports, but I don't want to release what we know for obvious reasons," he said.
While some military personnel have reportedly grumbled about being kept out of the loop, others don't mind.
Army Col. Larry James, whose team of psychologists assists interrogators, said he does not want to know where Camp 7 is.
"I learned a long, long time ago, if I'm going to be successful in the intel community, I'm meticulously in a very, very dedicated way going to stay in my lane," he said. "So if I don't have a specific need to know about something, I don't want to know about it. I don't ask about it."