Security breaches suicidal detainees guantanamo
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Sunday, Nov. 30, 2003
Inside "The Wire"
Security breaches. Suicidal detainees. A legal challenge heading to the Supreme Court. Welcome to Guantanamo
By NANCY GIBBS WITH VIVECA NOVAK IN GUANTANAMO
Next to the alternatives, Camp Four is paradise. Real, colored prayer rugs, thicker mattresses, pillows even, and soccer shoes. Pure-white clothes instead of glaring catch-me-you-if-you-can orange. A librarian comes around with books, and lunch is on picnic tables, family style. This is where the prisoners get to come if they are good, meaning well behaved and fruitful in their interrogations. "We try to sell this place," says Army Colonel Jerry Cannon, a National Guard member who in his other life is the sheriff of Kalkaska County, Mich. Military interrogators mention Camp Four to the prisoners, who get a glimpse of it as they pass it on their way to the hospital or elsewhere. It is one more step toward the day when some of the detainees might actually get out for good. That goal is reinforced by Arabic posters in the exercise yards, like the one full of children's faces. Loosely translated, it reads, Dad, how can I grow up without you?
Of course, how to get out of the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is as great a mystery as the place itself. Escape is a long shot. The base is a prison, and a jewelry box. "You can't be too careful protecting this enormously valuable intelligence trove," says Army General Geoffrey Miller, commander of the joint task force that runs the detainee operation on the 45-sq.-mi. base. And so there are constant perimeter patrols by infantry squads in full battle gear, and visitors get turned inside out before they're allowed anywhere near the cellblocks. Getting out legally doesn't seem much easier. The detainees—660 suspects from 44 countries, scooped up in the war on terrorism—cannot challenge their arrests or plead their cases or even talk to a lawyer, because the U.S. government denies that they have those rights.
They are not U.S. citizens, and the base, while under total U.S. control, is not on American soil; since 1903, it has been leased from Cuba for 2,000 gold coins a year, now valued at $4,085, in perpetuity.
That leaves one last exit strategy when desperation takes hold. According to military officials, there have been 32 suicide attempts in 18 months, at least one of which left a man in a coma. (Cannon calls the attempts "manipulative behavior.") Former detainees say in most cases the prisoner made a noose out of clothes or sheets and tried to hang himself from the cell bars; one, they say, tried to slit his throat with a knife he had made from metal.
"Whenever we saw someone trying to kill themselves," says Ghazi Salahuddin, a detainee from Pakistan released in July, "we would all shout, attracting the attention of the guards." The new mental-health clinic on the base is usually close to full.
Though U.S. officials have released some inmates deemed harmless, new ones are still arriving, with about 20 coming and going last week. Amid a global argument about their rights, the Supreme Court recently agreed to decide whether the captives at Guantanamo can at least challenge their detention in federal court. But in the meantime, however great the outcry from allies and human-rights groups, the U.S. military, along with the White House and the Justice Department, has not retreated from an unprecedented approach to prisoners captured in an unprecedented war.
If you are a government hungry for clues about the enemies' plans, one problem with the Geneva Convention governing treatment of traditional prisoners of war is that it includes strict rules limiting interrogation. So these detainees are called "enemy combatants," and there is no field manual outlining the rules for handling them. Inmates arrive with no knowledge of how long they will stay, facing the possibility of trial by a military tribunal whose procedures have yet to be tested, on charges that have yet to be revealed and that carry sentences that may depend on not just what crimes they committed but what country they are from. The U.S. last week cut a deal with Australia that if its detainee David Hicks is found guilty, he will not be executed and will be allowed to have his family in the courtroom and talk to his lawyers without Americans listening in. But the Brits are pushing for more, and what about the inmates from Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan? Seeing the risks of multiple standards of justice, Pentagon officials said last week that they are conducting a wholesale review of the tribunal rules.
Washington attorney Thomas Wilner represents the families of 12 Kuwaiti detainees whose case is among those the Supreme Court will hear early next year. He rejects the Bush Administration's insistence that detainees have no legal rights. "The arrogance of saying 'Well, we're feeding them well' is just absolutely absurd," he argues. Two of his clients' fathers have died while they were incarcerated. "They have had children born and parents die.*spaceThey don't get to see their families, and they have no hope of getting out, even if they are innocent. That is what the Geneva Convention is about." Wilner has no problem with the U.S. imprisoning proven terrorists. He just wants a way to establish who the bad guys are. "Can you imagine being an innocent person being swept up into this thing and having no opportunity to say to somebody 'Hey, you've got the wrong guy?'"
So far, the processing of detainees, whether for trial or release, has been slow; the Supreme Court's intervention, however, may have delivered a jolt. A U.S. military official tells Time that at least 140 detainees—"the easiest 20%"—are scheduled for release. The processing of these men has sped up since the Supreme Court announced it would take the case, said the source, who believes the military is "waiting for a politically propitious time to release them." U.S. officials concluded that some detainees were there because they had been kidnapped by Afghan warlords and sold for the bounty the U.S. was offering for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. "Many would not have been detained under the normal rules of engagement," the source concedes. "We're dealing with some very, very dangerous people, but the pendulum is swinging too far in the wrong direction."
Still, even as he speaks, new interrogation headquarters are being built to replace the long beige trailers where questioning occurs. If over the past two years conditions at Guantanamo—Gitmo for short—have become more humane, it is partly because they are also more permanent. The standards have come a long way from Camp X-Ray, the holding pen established during the Afghan war, where the world saw shocking images of detainees on their knees, blindfolded and shackled in a compound of cages. These days at X-Ray, vines curl through the old cells; turkey vultures circle overhead. X-Ray has been replaced by Camp Delta, but because the Army has allowed no outside photographers to shoot the new facilities, it is the old image that lingers.
The population of the naval base, civilian and military, has tripled to more than 6,000 since January 2002. To accommodate the growth, a great deal of new construction is going on beyond the cellblocks. In addition to McDonald's, there are now Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC. Another gym is being built, and town houses, and a four-year college opens next month. Amenities matter because the troops have nowhere else to go; the rest of Cuba is off limits. Asked what he misses most besides his family, Sergeant John Campbell, a National Guardsman on a one-year deployment, talks as if he's in detention too: "the ability to get in a car and drive somewhere else."
The priority of the base is security—keep terrorists off the streets—but the product is information. Every week close to half the detainees are brought in for sessions that may last anywhere from one to 16 hours. They are conducted by any of the 40 four-person "tiger" teams—two interrogators, a linguist and an analyst. The commanders have concluded that interrogators should be young, maybe mid-20s, fairly new to the service. "Intelligence gathering is a young person's job," says Miller. "They're inventive and thoughtful." The idea is to build rapport with the detainees and come at them again and again, using new leads from intelligence gathered at Gitmo or elsewhere. "We got five times as much intelligence (from the detainees) last month as in January '03," says Miller, which, depending on whom you talk to, means that either the interrogators are getting better or the inmates more willing to say anything.
British detainee Moazzam Begg is among the first six prisoners cleared for possible trial. His parents say he had gone to Afghanistan to do humanitarian work—set up a school, install water pipes—and was picked up in Pakistan by American soldiers at the house where he was staying. "It is nearly a complete year since I have been in custody," he wrote to his parents early this year.
"After all this time, I still don't know what crime I am supposed to have committed. I am beginning to lose the fight against depression and hopelessness." According to lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, Begg confessed to an al-Qaeda plot to load a drone aircraft and then dust the House of Commons with anthrax. Smith, who represents the British detainees at the behest of their families, dismisses the confession as nonsense. "If you're held in solitary confinement, you're going to start making things up just to try and get out of that," he says. "Part of this whole Alice in Wonderland world is that in order to get charged with an offense down there and in order to get a lawyer, you have to agree to plead guilty."
All new inmates at guantanamo start in Camp Three, the highest-security unit. (There is no logic to the camp names: Camp Three is tighter than Two or One, but Camp Four is the least restrictive.) Cells are 6 ft. 8 in. by 8 ft., with a squat-style toilet, a metal sink and a sleeping berth affixed to green steel-mesh walls. Each new detainee is issued a pair of shorts, a pair of long pants and two T shirts, all in orange, plus shower shoes, a towel and washcloth, toothpaste and shampoo, a prayer mat, beads, prayer oil, a prayer cap, a copy of the Koran and basic bedding, though no pillow.
Twice a week, detainees get 20 to 30 minutes to shower and exercise. The guards say inmates spend much of the day reading the Koran; an arrow in their cells points the way to Mecca, and there are five calls to prayer daily via loudspeaker—instituted after a five-day hunger strike by some inmates. Former Pakistani detainee Salahuddin recalls that the prisoners who spoke English would try teaching their U.S. guards about Islam. "Some of the soldiers were interested," he says. "They even learned to recite the Kalma, the invocation of the Koran."
Guards patrol the hall of each 48-cell unit constantly, on routes designed to have a set of eyes on each prisoner every 30 seconds. Female guards have a harder time than males. "It's stressful," says Sergeant Rebecca Ishmael. "Sometimes they won't look at females or will refuse their food if it's been handled by a female." Prisoners have sometimes thrown bodily waste at the guards. Detainees in turn tell stories of punishment for bad behavior.
Mohammed Sagheer, 52, a Pakistani preacher who has filed a $10.4 million lawsuit against the U.S. government for wrongful imprisonment, claims the Guantanamo wardens used drugs to control the prisoners. "They would give us these tablets that made us senseless," he says. "I'd hide the pill under my tongue and then spit it out when the guard was gone." Sagheer says he was twice put into solitary confinement in a dark cell for spitting at guards, who, he says, provoked him by throwing his Koran on the ground and beating him. A Guantanamo official said the task force doesn't address individual allegations, but she insists that the detainees are treated "humanely." With good behavior, inmates can move up to Camp Two, then One, in hopes of new privileges—bottled water and a cup, a checkerboard and checkers, more exercise time. There are three juvenile prisoners, ages 13 to 15, who live outside the gates of Camp Delta at Camp Iguana. Once an officer's cottage, it has a magnificent view of the ocean, which none of the underage detainees had seen before coming to Guantanamo. Inside are two bedrooms, each with two beds, and a room with a TV and a vcr. Videos with animals are popular with the kids; their favorites include White Fang and The Call of the Wild. The kitchen has a refrigerator where fruit and other snacks are kept.
Among the guards is Sergeant P., who, like almost everyone else at Camp Delta who has contact with the detainees, covers the name on his uniform with duct tape so the prisoners can't identify him now or ever. Sergeant P. did not even want his full last name used in this story. A middle-school teacher in his nondeployed life, he, along with some of the other guards, was handpicked because of his experience with juveniles. "We do a lot of math and science with them," he says. "We don't try to indoctrinate them in Americanism." The juveniles pick up English quickly, he notes. Outdoors, the teenagers play soccer, boccie and volleyball. "We've lost quite a few balls to the ocean," he says.
Officials at Gitmo say most detainees have gained weight since they arrived at the facility. In the kitchen, where food is prepared for both detainees and troops, boxes of bananas and pita wait to be incorporated into a dinner menu.
Bread, milk, vegetables and fruit—bananas, apples, pears or dates—are included in each meal. The cooks use a lot of curry—breakfast might be curried eggs, dinner a curried-chicken stew—to approximate the cuisine of at least some of the prisoners. "The food I ate there was the best I'd ever had in my life," says Pakistani Shah Mohammed, now 21, who says he landed at Gitmo after he was kidnapped by an Uzbek commander and sold to the Americans for a bounty being offered for al-Qaeda fighters. He was released last July, after his interrogators concluded that he not only had had no contact with Osama bin Laden's group but also hadn't even known 9/11 had happened until they showed him pictures. "I'd like to visit America someday," he says. "Some of the wardens and soldiers became my friends."
In letters to their families, which are censored coming in and going out, some detainees have given the conditions at Gitmo decent reviews. Airat Vakhitov, one of eight alleged Talibs from Russia, wrote to his mother in Tatarstan that his conditions in Gitmo were much better than in the best Russian sanatorium. In fact, his mother Amina is concerned lest the Americans extradite her son to face a worse fate back home; she and another Russian mother have petitioned the U.S. government not to deport their sons. One detainee's brother, Arsen Mokayev, who served two years in prison for a criminal offense, sees it this way: "If they get into the hands of Russian investigators, they will be tortured and humiliated, and their will and beliefs might be broken. In the U.S., even if they are executed, they will think they are dying for their religion, which is just fine for a devout Muslim."
But the grandmother of a Canadian detainee has a different experience. One of Fatmah Elsamnah's two grandsons at Gitmo was released. She says the other, Omar Khadr, 17, is still recovering from wounds suffered during a fire fight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July 2002. The U.S. military has accused Omar of tossing a grenade that killed a 28-year-old Army medic during that battle. Omar is the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, described by counterterrorism experts in Canada and Egypt as al-Qaeda's financier and ace bombmaker. Elsamnah, who lives in the Toronto area, chokes back tears as she recounts a letter from Omar: "How are you, how are you doing, I miss you, do something for me, pleeeeease, do something for me."
By next July, the Supreme Court should rule whether the detainees may have access to the federal courts—but even if such rights are granted, that may not change much. Captives could force the government to show why they should be held, but it would take an unusual judge to stand up to a military that says a detainee is dangerous and possesses critical antiterrorist intelligence; judging guilt will be a completely separate process. Still, allowing prisoners a hearing would be a major step forward. "We ask that they have access to a lawyer, access to their families and, most important, have access to some tribunal to see whether there is a basis for them to be there," attorney Wilner says. "We ask for all those things, subject to any reasonable security regulations the government wanted to impose." He says at least two high-level government officials have told him they would welcome that kind of ruling. Among other things, it would affirm the values the war is defending in the first place.
—With reporting by Helen Gibson/London, Tim McGirk and Ghulam Hasnain/Islamabad, Siobhan Morrissey/ Miami, Simon Crittle/New York, Cindy Waxer/ Toronto and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow