Once upon a time, our offshore prison at Guantanamo was the sort of place where even an American National Guardsman, only pretending to be a recalcitrant prisoner “extracted” from a cell for training purposes, could be beaten almost senseless. This actually happened to 35 year-old “model soldier” Sean Baker, who had been in Gulf War I and signed on again immediately after the World Trade Center went down. His unit was assigned to Guantanamo and he volunteered to be just such a “prisoner,” donning the requisite orange uniform on January 24, 2003. As a result of his “extraction” and brutal beating, he was left experiencing regular epileptic-style seizures ten to twelve times a day. (And remember the Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs that seized him, on finally realizing that he wasn’t a genuine prisoner, broke off their assault before finishing the job.)
If you happened to be an actual prisoner — putting aside the female interrogators who smeared red paint (meant to mimic menstrual blood) on Arab detainees as a form of humiliation — you might end up like this:
“The A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”
“I saw another detainee sitting on the floor of the interview room with an Israeli flag draped around him, loud music being played, and a strobe light flashing.”
“On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more.”
These were, in fact, descriptions provided by outraged FBI agents assigned to Guantanamo in 2004 in memos or emails to their bosses back on the mainland. They confirmed prisoner claims that “military personnel beat and kicked them while they had hoods on their heads and tight shackles on their legs, left them in freezing temperatures and stifling heat, subjected them to repeated, prolonged rectal exams and paraded them naked around the prison as military police snapped pictures,” and so on.
Ah, but those were the good old days when Guantanamo was the real “24” — the only problem being that there wasn’t a “ticking bomb” prisoner in sight, just a former Australian professional kangaroo skinner, who had joined the Taliban before September 11, 2001 and never fired a shot at American forces, as well as a man who was supposedly Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur. That was kind of top o’ the line for the prisoners Guantanamo held until, last September, the real bad guys — 14 of them — were transferred there from the CIA’s secret prisons and torture chambers elsewhere on the planet.
Guantanamo Is Not a Prison
11 Ways to Report on Gitmo without Upsetting the Pentagon
By Karen J. Greenberg
Several weeks ago, I took the infamous media tour of the facilities at Guantanamo. From the moment I arrived on a dilapidated Air Sunshine plane to the time I boarded it heading home, I had no doubt that I was on a foreign planet or, at the very least, visiting an impeccably constructed movie set. Along with two European colleagues, I was treated to two-days-plus of a military-tour schedule packed with site visits and interviews (none with actual prisoners) designed to “make transparent” the base, its facilities, and its manifold contributions to our country’s national security.
The multi-storied, maximum security complexes, rimmed in concertina wire, set off from the road by high wire-mesh fences, and the armed tower guards at Camp Delta, present a daunting sight. Even the less restrictive quarters for “compliant” inmates belied any notion that Guantanamo is merely a holding facility for those awaiting charges or possessing useful information.
In the course of my brief stay, thanks to my military handlers, I learned a great deal about Gitmo decorum, as the military would like us to practice it. My escorts told me how best to describe the goings-on at Guantanamo, regardless of what my own eyes and prior knowledge told me.
Here, in a nutshell, is what I picked up. Consider this a guide of sorts to what the officially sanctioned report on Guantanamo would look like, wrapped in the proper decorum and befitting the jewel-in-the-crown of American offshore prisons or, to be Pentagon-accurate, “detention facilities.”
1. Guantanamo is not a prison. According to the military handlers who accompanied us everywhere, Guantanamo is officially a “detention facility.” Although the two most recently built complexes, Camps Five and Six, were actually modeled on maximum and medium security prisons in Indiana and Michigan respectively, and although the use of feeding tubes and the handling of prisoners now take into account the guidelines of the American Corrections Association (and increasingly those of the Bureau of Prisons as well), it is not acceptable to use the word “prison” while at Gitmo.
2. Consistent with not being a prison, Guantanamo has no prisoners, only enemies, specifically, “unlawful enemy combatants.” One of my colleagues was even chastised for using the word “detainee.” “Detained enemy combatants” or “unlawful enemy combatants,” we learned, were the proper terms.
3. Guantanamo is not about guilt and innocence — or, once an enemy combatant, always an enemy combatant. “Today, it is not about guilt or innocence. It’s about unlawful enemy combatants,” Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr.,the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo tells us. “And they are all unlawful enemy combatants.” This, despite the existence of the official category “No Longer an Enemy Combatant” which does not come up in our discussions. Nor was the possibility that any of the detainees at Guantanamo might have been mistakenly detained ever discussed. As the administrator for the tribunals that are to determine the status of each detainee explained to us, the U.S. Government takes “a risk when we transfer” detainees out of Guantanamo.
4. No trustworthy lawyers come to Guantanamo. Our handlers use the term “habeas lawyers” as a seemingly derogatory catch-all for lawyers in general, both defense attorneys — those who are defending their clients before the military commissions — and habeas attorneys, those who seek to challenge in U.S. courts the government’s right to detain their clients. The U.S. military and its Public Affairs Officers are convinced that the terrorists are transmitting information to their colleagues in the outside world via their lawyers. According to our escorts, “habeas lawyers” may be the unwitting pawns of terrorists. As a power-point presentation at the outset of our formal tour (and as subsequent remarks make clear to us), it is the belief of the American authorities that the detainees are using their lawyers in accordance with the directives outlined in the al-Qaeda training manual that was discovered in Manchester, England in 2000. This manual, they assure us, encourages terrorists to “take advantage of visits with habeas lawyers to communicate and exchange information with those outside.”
5. Recently, at least, few if any reliable journalists have been reporting on Guantanamo; only potential betrayers are writing about it. “The media” arrive with ostensibly open eyes. Yet these guests, graciously hosted from morning to night, go home perversely refusing to be complimentary to their hosts. They suffer from “the chameleon effect,” as I was told more than once by military public information office personnel, and “we just don’t understand it.” For our part, we visitors didn’t understand why we were forbidden to walk anywhere — even to the bathroom — by ourselves, talk to anyone other than those we were introduced to (none actual prisoners), or even take a morning run up and down the street we were lodged on, although there was not a prisoner in sight.
6. After years of isolation, the detainees still possess valuable information — especially today. When asked what kind of useful information the detainees could possibly have for interrogators, many already locked away in Gitmo for over five years, the answer was: “I believe that we are, in fact, getting good and useful and interesting intelligence — even after five years.” Right now, they are especially useful. This is because, Admiral Harris told us, “We have up-and-coming leadership in al-Qaeda and in the Taliban in Afghanistan [and] we don’t know what they look like. There’s never been a photograph taken of them or there’s never been a photograph that US forces have of them. But their contemporaries are quite often the same individuals that are in the camps here today. So we will work with law enforcement and their sketch artists will work with these detainees, the compliant and cooperative detainees And those pictures will be sent out to the forward fighting area.” No one asked just how reliable our own memories would be after five years of isolated detention.
7. Guantanamo contains no individuals — inside the wire or out. The prisoners are referred to not by name, but by number. The guards and others, even outside the confines of the prison camp, remove the Velcroed names which are on their uniforms, leaving blank strips on their chests where their identity would normally be, or they replace their names with their ranks. Either way, they strive to remain anonymous. They tell us that they fear retaliation against themselves and their families from a presumably all-seeing, all-reaching jihadi network. With the media, most follow the same rules. We, too, could evidently land them in trouble with al-Qaeda. Thus, many refuse to tell us their names, warning those we greet to be careful not to mistakenly call them by name in front of us.
8. Guantanamo’s deep respect for Islam is unappreciated. All the food served in the prison is halal, prepared in a separate kitchen, constructed solely for the detainees. All cells, outdoor areas, and even the detainee waiting room in the courthouse where the Military Commissions will be held, have arrows pointing to Mecca. All compliant detainees have prayer rugs and prayer beads. All detainees, no matter how they behave, have Korans. The library includes books on Islamic history, Islamic philosophy, and on Mohammed and his followers. Our escorts are armored against our protests about the denial of legal rights to prisoners. The right to challenge their detention in court, actually being charged with a crime, or adhering to the basic rules of procedure and evidence that undergird American law — none of this is important. They do not see that what’s at stake is not building a mosque at Gitmo, any more than it is about serving gourmet food, or about the cushy, leather interrogation chairs we are shown. It is about extending the most basic of legal rights, including the presumption of innocence, to those detained here.
9. At Guantanamo, hard facts are scarce. This, we are told, is a security measure. “As the 342nd media group to come through here, you’ll notice that we speak vaguely. We can’t be specific. You will notice that we talk in approximate terms and estimates only. Those are operational security measures. We don’t want to take away position” — a phrase which I took as shorthand for revealing actual numbers, names, locations, dates, etc.
Typical examples of preserving Gitmo security through a refusal to give out specific facts:
“What is that building?” [I am referring to one directly in our view.]
“How long has the lieutenant been here?”
“Since she got here.” “Where is Radio Range?” [This is the area on which the camps are built.]
“I never heard of it.”
10. Guantanamo houses no contradictions. And if you notice any — and they’re hard to miss — it’s best to keep quiet about them, unless you want a sergeant without a name chastising you about the dangers posed by enemy combatants, or one of the officers without a name reprimanding your lower ranking escort for giving out “misinformation.” Stories are regularly presented to portray a policy as particularly generous to the detainees; only later does someone mention that it might have been an answer to the needs of the guards themselves. A typical example:
“We allow two hours of recreation a day in order to comply with the Geneva Conventions,” they tell us. But a guide at another moment leads us to believe that there is actually a more pressing reason for allowing the recreation. “We need them to go outside so that we can search their cells for weapons and contraband.”
These sorts of contradictions leave me ultimately feeling sorry for our escorts. It is not their fault that they know so little about the place they are charged with explaining to us. Most of them arrived roughly eight months ago and were handed a defensive script. They are often quite sincere when they tell us that they don’t know answers to our questions.
They actually don’t know what went on before their arrival, or where things were located in earlier days, or if perchance abuses or outbursts, not to speak of torture, might have occurred at Gitmo, or even who was in charge as little as a year ago. Few, if any, from the old days are there to instruct or correct them.
Of course, if they wanted to, they could learn the details that many of us have picked up over the years simply by reading or by talking to those who spent time there. But this is not their task; they are but mouthpieces, nothing more, as they try to tell us time and again when we ask our questions. And, anyway, they themselves expect to leave relatively unscathed sometime this spring.
Finally, for those of us who want to write about Guantanamo and who are grateful for having been shown around and had the myths and realities of the Bush administration’s most notorious detention facility laid out so clearly, a final lesson:
11. Those who fail to reproduce the official narrative are not welcome back. “Tell it the wrong way and you won’t be back,” one of our escorts warns me over lunch.
Only time will tell if I got it right.
Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law and is the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib and editor of The Torture Debate in America.
Copyright 2007 Karen J. Greenberg