The call from the Pentagon couldn’t have been more timely. Just days after London suffered its worst attack on civilians since the Nazi “Blitz,” clearance to tour the military’s Camp Delta prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 518 “high value” terrorists are being held, had finally come through.
The purpose of the trip was to determine if the so-called “detainees” at Guantanamo are being treated humanely, or whether the accusations leveled by a growing chorus of press, international human rights organizations and even some members of Congress were true—that they were being mistreated, tortured, and sometimes murdered by U.S. military personnel in a manner reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.
Since the opening of the detention facilities at Gitmo in 2002, they have come under scrutiny—at the Pentagon’s initiation—from more than 1,000 domestic and foreign journalists, most of them skeptical, some outrightly hostile to the U.S. military.
Eleven U.S. senators, 77 House members and 99 congressional staffers have made fact-finding treks there. An army of ACLU attorneys, Amnesty International investigators and International Red Cross personnel have been given carte blanche access to the prisoners.
Gitmo is now one of the most investigated military installations on earth. The Pentagon has the fact-finding tours down pat. Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commanding officer of the prison facilities, is literally the first to meet visitors. The moment the plane door opens, he begins the non-stop briefing and doesn’t waste any time getting to the purpose of the tour. Yes, he says, there may have been some past incidents of minor prisoner “abuse” at Gitmo, but he and his staff are dedicated to enforcing a policy of “zero tolerance.” Torture, of any kind, he says steely-eyed, is a criminal offense and will be dealt with severely.
He acknowledges that some visitors may think the Pentagon is putting on a “dog and pony show,” that the treatment of prisoners changes the moment visitors leave. But to that, he says, “I’ll leave that to your judgment once you see for yourself, observe the measures we have taken, talk with the men and women under my command.”
Hood and his staff are well aware they are in the international spotlight and that any mistreatment of prisoners, no matter how minor, intentional or not, can be a career-ender, or even result in criminal prosecution. The “ghosts” of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal—which resulted in several courts martial—hover over Gitmo like an assembled firing squad.
The thought occurs more than once on the tour that those guarding the terrorists feel more threatened than the inmates. And they should. The captive terrorists have powerful, sympathetic friends. Virtually every nation and organization that opposes the Bush Administration’s War on Terrorism, particularly in Iraq, including many in Congress, eagerly wait to exploit any G.I. misstep—real or contrived. What’s more, the terrorist detainees know it and aren’t reluctant to threaten the military guards with revenge.
One detainee told his captor that when he was released he would track him and his family down on the Internet and “cut their throats like sheep.” Assaults by prisoners on guards, ranging from punches and body slams, to throwing objects, even feces and urine, are a near daily occurrence. One detainee has attacked his military guards more than 20 times, swearing each time to kill all of them when he is released.
That may be sooner rather than later if the ACLU has its way.
ACLU lawyers have advanced court-clogging arguments and briefs invoking a hodge-podge of international laws and U.S. criminal statutes. All are intended to win release of their detainee-clients. And many of the “innocent” prisoners previously released from Gitmo quickly returned to their deadly occupations and were killed, recaptured or identified carrying out other terrorist acts.
Those held at Gitmo are 518 of the worst al Qaeda and Taliban in captivity, culled from more than 70,000 prisoners captured on Afghanistan battlefields. Some are highly experienced bomb makers, trainers, recruiters and financiers. Others have been identified, by the detainees themselves, as Osama bin Laden lieutenants and body guards. Then, there are the garden variety al Qaeda terrorists—hijackers, kidnappers and suicide bombers-in-waiting—who fill out the ranks. A few have been educated in the United States. One received a graduate degree in avionics management at the prestigious Embry Riddle Aviation School in Arizona. Another earned a masters degree in petroleum engineering at Texas A&M. Among the detainees are medical doctors, lawyers, airplane pilots and aviation specialists, engineers, divers and linguists. Dozens have traveled and lived in the U.S., maintaining ties with those who still live here.
For all that, many are living in better conditions than they have ever experienced. Detainees who do not threaten guards and actually follow camp rules reside in communal dormitories. Those who misbehave are housed in individual cells. All are served three “culturally sensitive” meals each day, untouched by “infidel” hands. The menu contains more than 100 selections and probably accounts for the average 15-pound weight gain by detainees.
They play soccer, volleyball, cards and chess. A fully equipped hospital is within the prison compound. Military doctors provide detainees with everything from new limbs to heart surgery.
These days, the doctors said, “sports injuries” are on the rise because of outdoor activities. I joke: “And maybe a brisk round of kick-the-guard.” No one laughs.
There’s little humor inside the prison compounds. There are no weapons either. When I asked a guard how he expects to prevent an escape and said, “Think you’ll stop him with harsh language?” The young man responds, straight-faced: “That’s not permitted either, sir. There is no escape, no place to run.” Good point. Even though most of the prisoner compounds are close to the fence line that separates Cuba from Guantanamo, Marines patrol the border. Beyond that are Cuban Frontier Guardsmen and minefields.
Each detainee is provided with a copy of the Koran, prayer rug and beads, skullcap and oils—and the chance to use them five times daily during calls to prayer. Black arrows pointing east to Mecca are painted everywhere, even in hospital and interrogation rooms. There’s no mystery about what the detainees pray for: They readily admit they implore Allah to cause the slow painful death of their captors and the annihilation of Israel and America.
That’s one reason the administration wants to keep them locked up. The other is for their intelligence value.
I was allowed to observe, remotely, four interrogation sessions. (Actually, I saw five, but since one terrorist decided to use the time to catch a nap, I won’t count that.) They were like friendly chats between friends in air-conditioned rooms. The detainees often pick the topics—politics, religion, whatever’s on their mind—while interrogators, dressed in civilian clothes, try to steer the conversation to more useful information. If not for the shackles on their ankles, tethered to a bolt on each interrogation room floor, a necessary safety measure to protect the questioners, you’d think the detainees were enjoying it. Some do actually request interrogation sessions so they can grab a snack. Yes, they munch on cookies and slurp soda during the questioning.
Hood insists the interrogations are producing in-depth intelligence, what he calls “a wider mosaic of how al Qaeda operates,” which has proven invaluable to both military field commanders and Homeland Security officials. But given the nature of intelligence gathering, it is unlikely you will see any headlines reporting success, nothing about terrorist attacks foiled or innocent lives saved.
If “the first casualty of war is truth,” Guantanamo is the latest battlefield strewn with the bloodied reputations of American men and women in uniform who stand falsely accused by countrymen and enemies alike. There is far more truth to Rush Limbaugh’s parodies of “Club Gitmo” than Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin’s shameful and false analogy to a Nazi concentration camp.