Published January 7, 2015
Since 2001, the US-registered shipping company Transatlantic Lines LLC, co-founded, partly owned and run by Icelandic citizen, the company’s vice president, Guðmundur Kjærnested, has handled all transportation of supplies to the military base in Guantanamo Bay.
We contacted Guðmundur Kjærnested before publication of this article. Having been told of the article’s main focus, Guðmundur refused to comment.
Freight transportation to and from Guantanamo is handled by a tugboat, which tows the barge Guantanamo Bay Express, 1,000 miles, from Florida to the Bay, and back, twice a month. The tug boat and the barge, the “Guantanamo Bay Express”, today count as one of the Transatlantic Lines’ five vessels.
Transatlantic Lines seems to be, not a freight transporter on the route, but the freight transporter. In 2002, the barge was described as “the lifeline for all the service members and citizens of Guantanamo Bay,” in The Wire, a newsletter published for the “personnel assigned to JTF-160 and COMNAV Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba”. JTF —that’s Joint Task Forces. They have operated the detention camps since the beginning, in 2001.
According to the newsletter, as “the one and only way in which our goods are delivered”, the barge has carried “almost anything imaginable from Banana Nesquik to toilet tissue to speedboats”. When asked about the benefits of his job, the tugboat’s captain in 2002, Michael J. Smith, replied: “I’m proud to be able to contribute to Enduring Freedom” – that’s Operation Enduring Freedom, the name given by US authorities to the war in Afghanistan and related activities, including extrajudicial imprisonments, all labelled as elements of the “war on terror”.
Transatlantic Lines LLC was founded by Guðmundur Kjærnested in Connecticut in 1998. Its Icelandic sister company, Atlantsskip, was registered around the same time, but went out of business in 2008. As a coordinated enterprise, the two firms made their first contract that same year, with the US Department of Defense, on freight transportations to be provided for the military base in Keflavík, Iceland. The deal became a matter of dispute in Iceland, apparently because it collided with business interests of the already established shipping giant Eimskip.
The US closed down its base in Keflavík in 2006. In the meantime, Transatlantic Lines had won other contracts with the Defense Department. Whereas the part of Guðmundur Kjærnested’s enterprise which was registered in Iceland, Atlantsskip, seems to have run int trouble after the closure of the Keflavík base, the company’s American counterpart seems to thrive, as it seems mainly thanks to its business with the US military establishment.
Another related firm, the Icelandic oil vendor Atlantsolía, was described as a sister company of the two, while Atlantsskip existed. It remains in business, but current relations between Atlantsolía and Transatlantic Lines could not be fully established before publication.
In the period from 2000 to 2014, Transatlantic Lines won a total of 27 contracts with the US Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, whose total obligations amount to US $184 million. Transatlantic Lines thereby classifies as “a large government contractor”. Four of the shipping company’s five vessels are today chartered by the Military Sealift Command.
The first contract made between Transatlantic Lines and the US Department of Defense, about transportation services for the base in Guantanamo Bay, was awarded the company in June 2001. With its later extension to the end of June 2004, that contract is estimated at a worth of slightly over US $16 million.
The largest contract, so far, was signed on February 13, 2002, whereby the Department of Defense purchased cargo and freight services from Transatlantic Lines for US $ 44.9 million. The term used for the services provided, in the Department of Defense’ newsletter, is “dedicated ocean liner cargo service to U.S. military installations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba”.
A 2002 contract also designates the facilities in Guantanamo Bay as the location to be serviced: “Service includes dedicated ocean, inter-modal, and related transportation services primarily between Continental U.S. (CONUS) and Naval Station (NAVSTA) Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
A 2009 contract with the US Navy also cites Guantanamo: “TransAtlantic Lines LLC … is being awarded a $5,737,108 fixed-price requirements contract for dedicated sealift services to transport lawful cargo by U.S. flag ships between Jacksonville, Fla., and the terminal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
Diego Garcia and other routes
The Florida—Guantanamo Bay route is not the company’s only line of service. Information about the routes assigned in each of the company’s contracts may or may not be publicly available, but could in any case not all be retrieved in due time for the publication of this article. At least one contract designates the “Japan/Korea area” as the location of the transportation services to be provided. Another contract, also from 2009, specifies Praia da Vitória, in the Portuguese Azores.
Since 2004, Transatlantic Lines is also known to have handled transportation to the military base “Camp Justice” on Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll in the Indian ocean, which UN experts say may have been used for extrajudicial detention and interrogations during the post-2001 “war on terror”, albeit far less extensively than the facilities in Guantanamo Bay.
In the case of Diego Garcia, such claims first appeared in the Washington Post in 2002. Further evidence showed up in subsequent years, as recently summarised by Al Jazeera. As of yet, the claims have neither been conclusively verified nor refuted, but resurfaced after the publication of the US Senate’s 2014 report on the CIA’s use of torture against detainees.
The military base in Guantanamo Bay has become universally regarded as a site of sustained disregard for human rights and dignity. Violations central to its operation include long-term imprisonment without trial, abuse and, as now verified by US authorities themselves, sustained, systematic torture.
In the wake of the publication of the US Senate’s report on torture, Icelandic citizens have wondered about their own country’s involvement in that part of the “war on terror”. While it remains to be seen whether the use of Iceland’s airports and other facilities for “irregular renditions” will ever be thoroughly investigated, this other facet of support for the war effort has been out in the open all along.
For a few years around the turn of the century, Icelandic news media reported on contracts won and profits gained by Transatlantic Lines, for services provided to the US Departments of Defense and “Homeland Security”. As the “war on terror” has become ever less respectful in popular opinion, Transatlantic Lines has, perhaps wisely, moved its operations out of the limelight.
Just before the end of 2014, the US released five prisoners from Guantanamo. They had all been held there for over a decade, without trial, suspected of “links to al Qaeda or allied groups”. At their release, an unnamed senior US official told Reuters that investigations had revealed they “could be described as low-level, if even that.” In Guantanamo Bay, 127 persons remain imprisoned, without any sort of trial. While human rights thus remain securely violated, Transatlantic Lines apparently continue to provide the “lifeline” that makes it all possible.