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AP observes guantanamo detention center

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AP Observes Guantanamo Detention Center
Jul 5, 3:26 PM (ET)


GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) - A two-day tour of Guantanamo Bay afforded The Associated Press the most extensive access ever allowed independent journalists, giving them views of some 50 detainees, including some in a new maximum-security prison. One detainee said he, too, was a reporter.

Watching through mirrored glass, and with the sound turned off, the AP also witnessed three interrogations, including one in the part of the camp reserved for problem detainees and prisoners believed to hold information important to the fight against international terrorist groups.

No armed guards were present at the interrogations, and officers said armed guards were never used during these sessions. They said each detainee is generally questioned twice a week, with sessions usually lasting two to four hours, with a maximum of 15 hours a day.

The scenes shown to an AP writer and photographer were a far cry from those at Abu Ghraib, the U.S.-run prison in Iraq where some troops are accused of abusing detainees. But interrogation techniques used here were recommended for Abu Ghraib by the Guantanamo center's former commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, and critics have questioned whether that is an indication abuses happened here, too.

Miller and other officials have denied that any Guantanamo detainee has been mistreated.

"This is a wholly different environment," said Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, who succeeded Miller. "We are not being shot at every day."

Two of the interrogations sessions watched by AP were at Camp Delta's normal detention center. The sessions were viewed from behind mirrored glass, and officers turned off the audio feed, which is used for analysts to crosscheck information.

The other session viewed was at Camp 5, where alleged leaders, problem detainees and prisoners believed to have high intelligence value are held. It was the first time a journalist was allowed to witness an interrogation there since that jail opened in May.

A problem detainee - a young man held since the beginning of the mission - had asked to see his interrogator, having clammed up in their last session. Although the detainee appeared silent much of the time, the interrogator viewed the session as a success, saying the man finally talked.

After the interrogator and linguist left the room, the bearded detainee began smiling, laughing and talking to what could have been another detainee, next door in the shower.

"Sometimes this detainee is very funny; other times he is not funny at all," said a female interrogator who often brings the prisoners mint tea and Fig Newton cookies. "Sometimes they are very pleasant at one moment, and then they tell you calmly and proudly about how they killed someone."

Officers said the primary focus of the prison always has been intelligence gathering.

"We've learned about recruiting, how terror cells are financed, their capabilities and plans that have been sitting on the table for attacks," said the senior interrogator, who along with other interrogators spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sliding a knight into attack mode with a meaty hand, a terrorism suspect taught his unarmed interrogator chess, grinning at his opponent and pausing briefly to look at a manual that U.S. officials believe holds key intelligence.

Next door, another prisoner in an orange jumpsuit poured tea from a thermos, fingered a Snickers candy wrapper and took a drag on a cigarette as he laughed with a female interrogator and squinted at a mug shot she handed him of a man with piercing ebony eyes.

In late June, one prisoner who had been unwilling to talk for more than a year opened up, the senior interrogator said. Another, the burly chess player, has been steadily cooperative.

"He often tells his chess opponents, 'Attack, attack, attack!' You learn an awful lot about some of these people from very simple methods," said the interrogator, who has brought the prisoner McDonald's hot fudge sundaes on occasion.

The first detainees arrived strapped into a cargo plane 2 1/2 years ago, shackled, bound and blindfolded. Most were captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, accused of links to the fallen Taliban regime or al-Qaida.

Ringed by turquoise waters where American troops snorkel, fish and lounge on pontoon boats on days off, this arid outpost on Cuba's eastern tip has been leased as a U.S. Navy base since 1903.

Officials thought its remote location on foreign soil would put prisoners outside the reach of U.S. constitutional protections, but the Supreme Court ruled last week that the 595 prisoners from 42 countries - all but three held without charge and denied lawyers - have the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts.

Most detainees have not yet been told of their newly won right. Nor were they told about the Abu Ghraib scandal, officials said.

Military lawyers are struggling to determine just how the ruling could affect operations here as well as a panel reviewing individual detentions and future tribunals.

Three prisoners - an Australian, a Sudanese and a Yemeni - have been charged with crimes ranging from conspiracy to commit war crimes to aiding the enemy, and have been selected to be tried by military tribunals that officials hope will begin in Guantanamo before the end of the year.

But the Supreme Court ruling could create delays and lawyers plan a flurry of challenges.

Questions about the fairness of tribunals and the treatment of detainees have multiplied since photographs were published of U.S. troops taunting hooded, naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Hood said nothing like that has occurred in Guantanamo. Two guards, however, were disciplined after one hit a detainee with a radio and another sprayed one with a hose. A third was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing.

"The photos that came out of Abu Ghraib were so terrible that I think it causes people to stop and wonder," said Hood, who assumed command in March. "It's a challenge every day ... the only way to overcome it is to invite people here and to have them look for themselves."

Criticism of the Guantanamo camp started when it opened, with the first pictures of shackled prisoners being locked into hastily constructed metal enclosures that rights activists compared to animal cages.

Twenty-one detainees have tried to kill themselves 34 times, the most recent attempt coming last January.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent group allowed to visit the detainees, issued a rare public rebuke of conditions in October. It and other groups contend the prolonged detention has harmed detainees' mental health. Some critics, however, charge that is the result of harsh interrogation techniques.

No detainees are currently on suicide watch and most are in good health, said Cmdr. Tom Delaney, in charge of the detainees' hospital.

Disputing reports that few detainees here still retain any value as sources of intelligence about terrorist activities, two interrogators said most prisoners have either killed someone or helped in an operational capacity.

They said about 20 percent are college educated and most know some counter-interrogation techniques, making it more tedious to extract information. Despite that, they don't mistreat the detainees, said the interrogators.

"It's counterproductive," said the senior interrogator, who has worked at the camp for nearly two years. "You don't end up getting what you want that way."

Before moving to the Abu Ghraib prison this spring, Miller instituted a system of rewards to encourage more cooperation from detainees.

One is a field trip for cooperative prisoners held in medium-security Camp 4, where detainees wear white uniforms, are allowed to exercise every day and get to keep more items such as letters and books in their cells.

Four or five of the 100 prisoners at Camp 4 are taken out about twice a week. Interrogators say the trips build trust with the men and prompt them to divulge more information.

In an unprecedented opportunity, the AP journalists were allowed inside a room with four of the prisoners during a four-hour field trip to a part of the detention center known as Camp Iguana. The big lizards it's named for amble around a complex of trailers and buildings that housed a handful of juvenile prisoners before their release last year.

The area is screened from view by green netting, and the detainees are allowed to sit on a hilltop and look at the Caribbean or play soccer. Most opt for air conditioning against the 100-degree (37-degree Celsius) heat and watch movies in a trailer that also has a pingpong table. This day the movie was "The Color of Paradise," an Iranian film about a father learning to accept his blind son.

One prisoner asked a commander in perfect English if the visitors were journalists and if he could speak to them. When told the visitors were journalists but he could not talk to them, he smiled and said that he and his friend were journalists. The Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera has said that one of its cameramen is wrongfully detained at Guantanamo.

Detainees are allowed to sit in the trailer unshackled. Guards stand outside.

The mood was less relaxed in the other camps, where open-air cell blocks made of chain-link fences allow detainees to see each other and chat. Most prisoners turned their backs to avoid being photographed. Some looked curious or nodded in greeting.

When a prisoner began criticizing American journalism, an officer hurried the visitors away from the cells, where angry detainees have been known to throw feces at guards.

Detainees in Camp 5 - which holds about 50 of 100 detainees considered uncooperative or high-intelligence value - stay in an air-conditioned concrete building in cells closed with metal doors and a strip covering an internal window.

A commander peeled back the tape to give a glimpse. In one cell, a man was curled up asleep, a prosthetic leg lying below his mattress.

The commander said the men - many with unkempt black beards - have developed their own cell routines. Some clean their cells and wash their jumpsuits each day. Many read and reread letters from home or study the Quran, Islam's holy book. Most observe the call to prayer that crackles over the loudspeaker the ritual five times daily.

A few look at the sunlight shining into cell windows, reaching their arms up and looping their fingers around the metal mesh.

One such photograph was censored by military officers who reviewed the AP's portfolio. They also would not allow publication of others they said might reveal the identities of detainees.

"The mission is, of course, more sensitive because we are under a microscope," said Army 1st Lt. Romel Santos, a 25-year-old guard from San Jose, California. "But as long as we keep doing the right thing, we're good to go. I think we're doing that already."

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