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In Guantánamo

If these surmises correspond in some measure to reality, the intelligence officials by now, after months of interrogation, must have a more realistic idea of how many minnows and how many big fish, if any, they caught in their net.4 But any conclusions they may have drawn about individual detainees—how dangerous they are, how liable to be brought up on charges before the much-debated, yet still unnamed, military commissions or tribunals—have yet to produce any consequences. Preparations for the legal circus that has been anticipated for nearly a year now, ever since the White House issued President Bush’s order reinventing the system of military justice for the “war on terrorism,” are simply not in evidence in Guantánamo.

At the time the order was issued, the White House was preparing for the imminent capture of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. With the fate of the top leaders still unknown, it may seem less urgent to get the commissions rolling. No lawyers or judges have been appointed, no renovations are going on at the old military courthouse where the trials would presumably be held, and no one has been charged. What legal preparations are underway can presumably be found in a Pentagon petri dish, awaiting implantation here. For now, military justice does not seem to be a Guantánamo priority. The administration of justice, after all, is reflexively backward- looking, more concerned with what has already happened than what might happen and, therefore, not the most pressing issue in the view of security planners.

It’s even possible, perhaps even likely, that the first persons to be charged are still somewhere else. The United States has two significant al-Qaeda leaders in custody, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Binalshibh, each captured in Pakistan. The fact that they are being interrogated in other, as yet undisclosed, locations is another indication that Guantánamo Bay’s main function may be that of a holding camp, one where the great majority of inmates will simply be detained without trial for the foreseeable future. And if this is correct, it follows that the debate about the gestating military commissions has no bearing whatsoever on the fate of most of the detainees.


That holding camp has a name. It’s called Camp Delta and sits, at the southeastern corner of the Guantánamo base, on a low bluff above the Caribbean and a beach known in happier days as Kittery Beach. On the way to the shore, you pass one of the Guantánamo base’s few charming features, a yellow diamond-shaped crossing sign with a picture of an iguana. The shore is now laced with electronic sensors and is regularly patrolled by the Army and Coast Guard, on alert for a seaborne rescue attempt by suicidal al-Qaeda marines. On the inland side of the compound, the small trailer used by the nine representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross—among whom eight languages are spoken—sits just outside the camp’s perimeter. Visiting journalists are ferried to the side of the camp facing the sea where they are asked to confine themselves to a “media observation point” marked off by strands of barbed wire and located roughly two hundred yards from the nearest cell block.

By day, you get an eyeful of glare off the metal roofs of the cell blocks and a view of guard posts and parallel lines of the high chain-link fences that surround the whole compound, topped and separated by razor-wire coils and covered with green plastic curtains to frustrate intelligence-gathering by the terrorist network. By night, the compound is bathed inside and out by eerie white light cast by halogen lamps on high poles, and sometimes it’s possible to make out flickering shadows behind the cell windows. These are covered by steel mesh, not glass, allowing, so you’re assured, the breeze off the sea to penetrate the cells, which can also be cooled by fans in the roof when military police guards are moved by their own discomfort, if not that of the detainees, to turn them on.

The flickering shadows, you’re told, may be actual al-Qaeda terrorists. It’s as close as reporters ever get these days to seeing them here. (Among the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention that the United States interprets rigorously is one discouraging public display of prisoners. This is out of respect for their “privacy,” military escorts explain.) Still, the crepuscular scene at Delta makes vivid the cramped detention regime in which the detainees have lived since the end of April, when they were moved from a warren of cages called Camp X-Ray several miles away. There they had initially been confined in plain, if distant, view of journalists who on one, and only one, occasion last March were allowed to get close enough to evoke shouted protestations of innocence.

Delta was thrown together for $9.7 million by a private contractor, Brown and Root Services—a division of Vice President Cheney’s old company, Halliburton—which flew in low-wage contract labor from the Philippines and India to get the job done, in much the same way that Asians were once brought to the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane. The cell blocks are assembled from the standard forty-foot steel boxes called connex containers that are used in international shipping: five cells to a container, eight containers to a cell block, with four lined up on each side of a central corridor where the lights and fans are installed. Welders cut away three sides of each container, replacing them with sidings of steel mesh, leaving the roof, floor, and one steel wall into which a window was cut. Floor-level toilets were installed—the kind requiring squatting, traditionally described as à la turque—and now these are sometimes mentioned as an example of American sensitivity to the cultural needs of the detainees. (Military police guards are the first to tell you that they are much to be preferred over the night soil buckets that they had to empty at X-Ray.)

The detainees are alone in their cells, sleeping on metal shelves fitted with thin mattresses of a sort used in US prisons. But through the chain-link walls they are able to maintain eye contact and conversation, assuming they have a common language, with five others—two on either side and three across the corridor. At 6.8 x 8 feet, each cell is only slightly smaller than the cells on Death Row in Brown and Root’s home state of Texas. There, however, the inmates are taken out one by one for an hour’s exercise and showers each day. At Guantánamo—where the detainees are never allowed to congregate under any circumstances and where they are periodically shuffled from cell to cell to keep cliques from forming—they are also taken out one by one to exercise and shower, but only twice a week, fifteen minutes each time. In other words, they are in their cells all but thirty minutes a week, unless they are summoned for interrogation. The detainees may be called to interrogation at night as well as during the day. Whenever they are removed from their cells, they are shackled. This regime is uniform for all detainees, except those who have shown defiance that caused them to be moved to “isolation,” a standard form of solitary confinement, where they are held in cells with four solid walls blocking any communication with other detainees. The isolation cells, being closed, are the only ones that are air-conditioned. The interrogation rooms are air-conditioned as well.

The ICRC simply does not speak about what it has learned about the treatment of the prisoners. But there has never been a hint that it has had to deal with complaints of physical abuse. I asked an army officer here whether the interrogators used the method of sleep deprivation to get the detainees to open up. He said he was not permitted to talk about interrogation methods. Then citing international rules that do not seem to exist, he volunteered that it was forbidden to keep someone under interrogation awake for more than twenty-four hours. It’s possible that the officer had an extremely dry sense of humor. It’s possible that he was telling me something. Confusing as his response was, I took it as an answer to my initial question.

According to the officers I spoke to, the rationale behind the tough detention regime is that there may be potential suicide killers among the detainees. Threats to the lives of the guards have been made, defenders of the administration’s procedures regularly assert, harking back to Attorney General Ashcroft’s contention that these detainees are “uniquely dangerous”—more dangerous, one would therefore presume, than those to be found in a maximum-security prison on the mainland. This view was probably colored by the fact that the first American killed in Afghanistan last November, the CIA agent Johnny Spann, was beaten to death in the prison uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif.

Actually, it appears, only one threat to the life of a guard has been reported and that was early on, during the stressful transfer of the first batch of detainees from Afghanistan to Cuba under marine guard.5 A reservist I met in New York following the completion of his Guantánamo tour was on the scene when the first detainees arrived. The marine guards, he said, would not allow them to talk or even raise their heads to look around. They had to kneel with their heads bowed. “They were so scared they couldn’t walk, so afraid they couldn’t stand,” the man said. Navy Seabees working near the compound were equally on edge and stayed that way. “We were just waiting for one of them to take someone’s eyes out, just waiting for it to happen,” he said. Once the detainees were in the X-Ray cages, or when they were summoned for interrogation, he said, some shouted defiance until they were restrained. A high official of the Taliban ministry of defense, he recalled, was especially obstreperous in those early days at X-Ray.

Since then, resistance has been limited to a bite on a guard’s arm, spitting, throwing water, and a hunger strike that gathered momentum early in March after a marine guard went into a cage while a detainee was praying in order to remove an improvised turban from his head, not understanding that Muslims cover their heads during prayer. The authorities eventually put two hunger strikers on IV drips in the hospital; one of the two didn’t finally relent until May 18, following his second round of forced feeding.

The reservist MPs who have been called up to take over guard duty at Camp Delta from the marines are now regularly told in their “cultural awareness” classes that they must never interfere with prayer and never touch the Korans that have been placed in every cell like Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms. Prayer caps are also now standard issue, as are foam rubber prayer mats. Among the reservists are experienced corrections officers from US prisons who have been less easily flustered, the officer I met in New York said, than the marines who were more given to shouting and displays of fury.

  1. 4

    A Los Angeles Times report on August 18 said that American intelligence officials were deeply disappointed by the gleanings from Guantánamo, which they attributed to the relative insignificance within the terrorist network of the detainees who were described as “low- and middle-level.” By contrast, in an interview in Le Monde timed to appear on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the head of the French counterespionage agency, the DST, Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, indicated that French officials had gained valuable new information from their interrogations of the six French nationals at Guantánamo.

  2. 5

    According to the Australian press, the man charged with making the threat was a soldier of fortune from Adelaide named David Hicks who converted to Islam after fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army and later joined a Muslim group seeking to infiltrate Kashmir called Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Herald Sun, an Australian paper, reported on July 8 that Hicks’s family had received a letter from him dismissing the allegation as “a load of crap.” The letter went on: “My interrogators admitted that the story was a lie.”

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