The head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly, told the House Armed Services Committee that upgrades to buildings including barracks and the dining hall for the American personnel assigned to the joint task force at the U.S. base in Cuba are badly needed. He described the living conditions at Guantanamo as "pretty questionable."
"We need to take care of our troops," said Kelly.
Kelly also said, though, the detainees are living in humane conditions.
Obama had pledged to shutter the prison at Guantanamo soon after taking office but Congress opposed it, passing a law that prohibits the government from transferring Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil and requiring security guarantees before they can be sent elsewhere in the world.
Kelly told the committee that the facilities at Guantanamo were designed as temporary structures and never intended to last as long as they have. The prison opened on the base in January 2002.
"These are things that we have to do right now," Kelly said of the repairs. "I'm assuming Guantanamo will be closed someday. But if you look at the past 11 years when it was supposed to be temporary, who knows where it's going. We've got to take care of our troops."
Kelly said none of the projects are aimed at improving the "lifestyle" of the detainees. But the improvements will increase security and improve the ease of movement for the detainees, which will benefit the guards by making their jobs less complicated.
The general estimated the price tag for the repairs at between $150 million to $170 million. Construction work at Guantanamo is expensive, he said, because of the base's remote location and lack of local labor.
"So a 10-penny nail costs 20 cents," Kelly said. "Everything's more expensive."
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee's top Democrat, raised concerns over the medical care for the 166 detainees at the prison. They are getting older, Smith said, and may soon require better medical care than is available at Guantanamo.
"And as the law stands now, and we have an inmate who has a heart attack, doesn't die, but needs more complicated care, where's he going to get it in Guantanamo?" Smith said. "He's not. And that opens up all kinds of implications in terms of human rights violations and problems that we would have with our own laws, as well as with international laws."
Kelly said there's a small naval hospital on Guantanamo that detainees have complete access to. He said he's received advice from the office of the Pentagon's general counsel that "we're within the law so long as they have access - immediate access to any and all medical care on-island."