The Other Guantanamo Bay

Camp Delta

Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo: Sgt. Scott Faddis)

Three anonymous American colonels, their name tags covered by green duct tape, enter a sound-proof room and take their seats opposite a young Saudi man shackled in a chair. Another Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) will soon get underway in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

During the next 15 minutes, a US Army officer serving as court recorder argues that the man in the white prison uniform is an al-Qaeda terrorist and not an innocent Arab traveler caught up in the Afghan hostilities. The fate of the detainee should therefore be decided by an annual review board dealing with "enemy combatants."

When given the opportunity to speak, the Saudi admits that, at age 18, he visited the Philippines in late 1996 to train for jihad with local Muslim rebels. "I was with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front," he says in pretty good English, but adds, "It is not related with al-Qaeda and the Taliban."

He similarly acknowledges two visits to Afghanistan. In early 1997, he learned to handle rocket propelled grenades at Camp Khalden, but he denies that the famed mountain redoubt — the alma mater of such al-Qaeda luminaries as Ramzi Yousef — was linked to Osama Bin Laden.

The Saudi claims that he was just passing through when, in June 2001, he spent two weeks at an al-Qaeda guesthouse in Kandahar. While some of his friends joined the ranks of Bin Laden, all he did was train would-be mujahiddin at a small, unaffiliated camp outside of Jalalabad.

"I believe in jihad to get your legal rights and freedom…not to be a terrorist or get civilians," the young detainee tells the CRST, later adding contritely, "I am sorry for what happened on the 11th of September." In a month's time, he will find out if the colonels bought his speech.

Though almost three years have passed since hundreds of captives from the Afghan theater first arrived at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, interrogators say they are still getting good intelligence on al-Qaeda — without the use of torture. However, the legality of these unusual detentions, and of their attendant tribunals, has been put into question by recent court decisions.

Prelude to Detention

On September 20, 2001, the US delivered an ultimatum to the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan: Hand over Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network for prosecution, or face the consequences. Three thousand Americans had been murdered in the 9/11 attacks, but the Taliban, who regarded Bin Laden a hero, chose to ignore the mounting fury.

The bombing of Kabul, the capital city, began on October 7. A month later, a US-led coalition swept through most of Afghanistan, but many of the top al-Qaeda and Taliban personalities managed to keep ahead of their pursuers. The coalition did, however, round up thousands of enemy prisoners, of whom close to 700 — wearing restraints, orange jumpsuits, and painted-over goggles — were flown to Cuba the following January.

Denied the POW status given to soldiers, the detainees first arrived at Camp X-Ray, where they lived in open-air cages, which human rights groups labeled as a "disgrace." But in February 2003, the spartan stockade gave way to Camp Delta, a modern complex of five holding areas with a hospital, handicapped-accessible cells and private toilets. So far, over 150 detainees, predominantly Pakistanis, have been sent home, but for the rest, the interrogations continue at a relentless pace.

Intelligence Bonanza

Two military policemen wearing florescent-green rubber gloves drive a detainee to Camp Delta 2/3 on a six-wheeled John Deere Gator. Next stop: The interrogation booth. Waiting for him there, in a room with a two-way mirror and a camera, is the Tiger Team — an interrogator, analyst and interpreter.

These three-person teams conduct over 250 interrogations each week, according to the defense news site However, on October 3rd the London Observer quoted a recently retired Pentagon officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Christino, who contends that the detainees have yielded little useful information.

It is an accusation that Major General Jay Hood, the current commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, laughs off.

"He's definitely wrong," Hood says of Christino. "There's no doubt in my mind that the intelligence gathered from the detainees is a value to the US and its allies in the global war on terror" — adding that much has been learned about al-Qaeda recruitment, training, funding and movement.

But S. can understand the skepticism. A middle-aged man in a green polo shirt, S. identifies himself as the senior interrogator and explains that he too once had his doubts about Camp Delta.

"Before I came down to Guantanamo, I thought, 'What could they possibly have of value after two and a half years?'" says the senior interrogator. "But when I got down here, I was like 'Wow!' I was surprised by what I had found." He claims that information gathered here has helped foil multiple terrorist attacks.

For their part, human rights groups have expressed concern over torture. An October 2004 backgrounder from Human Rights Watch cites three British Muslim detainees who falsely confessed to having met Bin Laden in Afghanistan. The three, released from Delta, are suing the US government for $10 million, claiming that they had caved in after being bombarded by bright light and blaring music as well as being shackled in uncomfortable positions.

The Pentagon denies the charges, and other released detainees report no mistreatment.

The US Army Field Manual 34-52 allows only 17 interrogation techniques — essentially mild ruses and yelling — to get prisoners of war to talk. But since October 2002, there has been a push to give Guantanamo interrogators greater leeway since the detainees were not given POW status.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld initially approved tougher tactics, such as hooding detainees or placing them in "stress positions," but later backtracked somewhat in January 2003. A year and a half later, the Schlesinger Report, which primarily investigated the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, found that only two Guantanamo detainees had been subjected to "additional techniques."

"I find that the direct approach, just interviewing a person like a journalist would, is the most effective," says S. "You let them talk and then catch them when they've contradicted themselves or something another detainee has said. At that point, they sometimes confess and say, 'Oh, you got me.'"

If that does not work, there are always positive incentives, such as eating Big Macs or smoking cigarettes in the interrogation booth. And indeed, a furtive peak at an interrogation in progress reveals a bearded detainee sitting with one leg crossed over the other, enjoying some chewing tobacco.

The key is patience. "Time is on our side," notes Steve Rodriguez, the director of the Joint Intelligence Group, which manages the interrogators. "After two years, you get tired of being asked the same questions."

Finally, when all else fails, there are "extraordinary renditions." The US has reportedly sent captured al-Qaeda bigwigs, such as Khaled Sheikh Muhammed and Abu Zubayda, to cooperative Arab governments for interrogation. The idea is to get critical information from terrorists without having to be the one who actually pulls out fingernails.

But this is still a violation of international conventions and the 1988 Foreign Affairs and Restructuring Act, says Jumana Musa of Amnesty International, arguing "torture is never a legitimate means of interrogation in any situation…"

Not Abu Ghraib

In April 2004, photographs of military policemen abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad aired on 60 Minutes II. The American public was shocked by such images as a female MP dragging a naked Iraqi by a leash and a hooded man balancing on a box, his fingertips hooked up to electrical wires.

Brigadier General Martin Lucenti, who serves under Hood, remembers the fallout at Guantanamo. "I came in on May 5 and Abu Ghraib happened right around that time," he says. "And I think that, initially, we were painted with the same broad brush."

And the media had good reason to be suspicious. The sadistic jailers at Abu Ghraib had taken their inspiration, in part, from Guantanamo. Indeed, Major General Geoffery Miller, a former X-Ray commander had visited Iraq in August 2003, a few months before abuse began, to review American detention and interrogation policies there.

Miller advocated the use of MPs in "setting the conditions" for interrogation, but according to official investigations into the scandal, his policy guidelines had been misinterpreted. For instance, the Fay Panel found that Miller "never recommended, nor were dogs used for, interrogations at Guantanamo [as was done in Iraq]."

The Schlesinger Report paints a scene of hopelessly overwhelmed military personnel making up their own rules as they go along — something which could not happen at Camp Delta, argues Lucenti.

"Number one, the guard to prisoner ratio here is almost one to one, while at Abu Ghraib it was, at times, 150 to one," he says. "Number two, Abu Ghraib existed in a war zone. There is no war zone here. There's no pressure. Also, we are not after tactical information…and that makes a difference."

In addition, MPs train for about a month at a mock-up Guantanamo facility in Fort Dix, New Jersey, before arriving on the island, and once at Camp Delta, they enroll in an on-the-job training program before being left on their own.

In early November, the Associated Press got hold of a Pentagon report documenting cases of abuse at Guantanamo — all of which were fairly minor episodes provoked by the detainees themselves. For example, in September 2002, a guard hosed down a detainee after the latter tried to throw a cupful of toilet water at him, while a year later, another MP struck a prisoner with a hand-held radio after being bitten on the ear.

In both instances, the MPs were punished with reduced rank and change of duties.

However, Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union remains skeptical of the disclosure, telling an AP reporter, "We're confident that there's more information there that has not been released."

But if the Joint Detention Operation Group (JDOG), which runs the camp's security detail, is really intent on mistreating detainees, it has an odd way of showing it. Each inmate at Camp Delta gets a Koran, string of prayer beads, vial of oil and skullcap. An arrow painted on each cell floor points the way to Mecca, and the camp's PA system pipes the Muslim call to prayer five times a day.

"There was reverse schedule for the fast of Ramadan," notes Col. Brice Gyurisko, JDOG commander. "We tried to keep meals and medical appointments in the evening."

Gyurikso explains that Camp Delta works on an incentive policy for good behavior. Everyone starts off in Delta 3, where they wear orange uniforms and are served food through rectangular slots, or "bean-holes," in grilled steel cages.

But if the detainees follow the rules and do not throw feces and urine at the MPs, they can trade up for a tan uniform and, finally, the coveted white one. "It was chosen for its Islamic significance," says one army reservist. "It's a more respectful color, if you will."

White uniformed detainees live in Delta 4, which is the most hospitable of the five holding areas in the Guantanamo complex. Here, detainees sleep together in rooms with floor fans and a prayer rug, and they serve themselves meals on a picnic table in the prison yard. They also get seven to nine hours of recreation time each day.

(The detainees from Camps Delta 1, 2 and 3 are slowly being transferred to Delta 5, which, opened in May, looks like any other US prison with its video cameras, concrete walls and automated doors, and those in Delta 4 will be transferred to the yet-to-be-built, medium security Delta 6.)

But it is not all carrots at Guantanamo, and some human rights groups have questioned the actions of the MP's baton wielding, rule-enforcing Initial Reaction Force (IRF).

In response, the staff of US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) sampled the video tape record of the IRF in action and, in July, concluded that "it does not appear that prisoners at Guantanamo were subjected to the types of egregious abuses that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or at Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan."

Legal Black Hole

The legal situation at Guantanamo has been the subject of much hyperbole in the press. In April, The Seattle Times cited one US district judge who compared the detaining of 550 suspected foreign militants at Camp Delta to the forced internment of 112,000 West Coast residents — most of them Japanese-American citizens — during World War II.

Not to be outdone, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has claimed that Guantanamo is a gulag in all but one way: "In fairness to the Soviets, it must be noted that at least their prisoners got sham trials."

Still, even sober minds have raised questions about the fairness of the Guantanamo detentions and various tribunals — the Administrative Review Board, Combat Status Review Tribunal, and military commissions — operating there. And following these ad hoc legal proceedings is made all the more confusing because they change in the face of constant court decisions.

First, the government has claimed few obligations towards its 550 charges. "We call them 'detainees,' and not prisoners, because they do not meet the criteria of prisoners of war set forth by the Geneva Convention," says Brigadier General Lucenti, "but we do treat them in the spirit of the Geneva Convention."

Ratified in 1949, the Third Geneva Convention builds upon the 1907 Hague Convention, which says that a belligerent must also conduct military operations in "accordance with the laws and customs of war" — that is, among other things, not murdering civilians.

Presumably, this would put al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization, beyond the pale. And according to the Muslim-run Web site, the majority of the accused militants kept in Guantanamo Bay are Arabs, mainly from the Gulf.

The Taliban, by contrast, fielded a state militia that did not attack US civilians, so it would seem that their captured fighters should get POW status. Unfortunately, Taliban fighters dressed like Afghan civilians, and the turn-of-the-century treaty says that a belligerent must wear "a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance."

Paul Butler, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, made the government's case for not granting POW status at a February 13 Defense Department press conference.

"If the Geneva Conventions are to be enforceable law, there need to be incentives built in," said Butler. "And what kind of incentives would we send if we allow the full treatment under the Geneva Conventions to be extended to enemy combatants who deliberately and purposely violate them?"

However, human rights groups are not happy with these off-the-cuff assessments. "The US failed to go through the proper process to make an individual determination as to whether those detained were POWs under Geneva III, protected persons under Geneva IV, or something else," says James Ross of Human Rights Watch.

In fact, only recently did the detainees get the right to protest their innocence.

On May 11, the Secretary of the Navy Gordon England created the Administrative Review Board (ARB) with the aim of reducing the detainee population. Each year, every enemy combatant would pass before a review board that would determine if he should still be held, handed over to another country, or even released.

Enemy combatant status was simply assumed.

But in June, the Supreme Court came knocking. It ruled, in both Rasul v. Bush and al-Odah v. United States, that the leased naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is effectively under American sovereignty, so detainees could bring suits in US federal courts challenging their detention.

The high court also decided, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, that, while the detentions were not illegal per se, those held in Guantanamo had the right to prove that they were not enemy combatants. As a result, the one-time Combat Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) was created to re-check the identities of all held in Camp Delta.

"Out of 100 detainees who have so far appeared before the CSRT," says the commander in charge of the proceedings, "only one guy, a Pakistani, was determined not be an enemy combatant and he was released."

But while the CSRT aims to clear up whether the detainee is an innocent civilian or enemy combatant, it still says nothing about the militant's POW status, and this ambiguity complicates the military commissions.

The presidential military order of Nov. 13, 2001 allows the trial by a special seven-member panel of those involved with al-Qaeda and acts of international terrorism. So far, 17 detainees of the total population have been called before the commissions.

According to a West Point Academy law professor Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Govern, "the panel was set up with the advice of outside legal experts, such as former attorney-general Griffin B. Bell and Bernard D. Meltzer, a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who is a professor at the University of Chicago."

Like in a regular court, the defendant is presumed innocent and represented by a lawyer, who can cross-examine the witnesses for the prosecution. But Ross complains that "the commissions are ad hoc tribunals that don't allow judicial review by an independent civilian court; limit greatly the right to prepare a defense, and permit prosecutions of persons for crimes unrelated to violations of the laws of war."

Human Rights Watch would have preferred a court-martial with stricter rules of evidence. But in March 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared, "The commissions are intended to be different, and the reason is because the president recognized that there had to be differences to deal with the unusual situation we face."

Not everyone found this argument persuasive. On November 9, US District Judge James Robertson halted the commission of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni accused of being the chauffer of Osama Bin Laden.

Robertson ruled that Hamdan ought to have access to classified evidence presented against him and that "until a competent tribunal determines that Hamdan is not entitled to POW status, he may be tried for the offenses with which he is charged only by court-martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

In essence, Robertson holds that the CSRTs failed to distinguish between types of combatants and that Pentagon lawyers must now go back to the drawing board.

"The administration will have to conduct a POW assessment or change the military tribunal's rules," says Govern, "otherwise Hamdan must be afforded the due process rights of a U.S. military court-martial."

The US government has appealed the decision on November 12. Will the military commissions be saved? Will the seemingly open-ended nature of the detentions be the next target of litigation? The interrogators at Camp Delta continue to collect intelligence from detainees — though given the constant barrage of legal challenges, one never knows for how long.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Schechter.