Waiting for Gitmo

Inside Guantanamo, where some 660 detainees of questionable intelligence value await a judgment that may never come

At Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, where 660 "enemy combatants" from 42 countries are being held in legal limbo—charged with no crime yet regularly interrogated, unable to talk with lawyers nor even aware that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to consider their plight—the building of detention blocks and interrogation centers continues.

Prisoners first arrived here two years ago, after being caught up in security sweeps following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Blindfolded, bound, shorn of facial hair, wearing surgical masks and earmuffs, they were brought to an all-but-forgotten Cold War outpost that was, in the words of base commander Captain Leslie McCoy, "just keeping the lights on." Initially, detainees were penned in Camp X-Ray, a collection of chain-link cages built a decade earlier to contain Haitian boat people. But after human-rights groups protested—Amnesty International said the cages fell "below minimum standards for humane treatment"—the somewhat more hospitable Camp Delta was erected.

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Built by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) for an estimated $9.7 million, Camp Delta now has gun towers, a working hospital, and the telltale sign of military permanency: a PX store. Some 2,100 members of an all-service unit known as Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JFTGTMO) have been assigned to Camp Delta, swelling the total base population to nearly half its Cold War complement. JFTGTMO'S motto is "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," and in theory enlisted personnel say "Honor Bound" when they salute officers, and the officers reply "To Defend Freedom," though during a press visit in November only the enlisted seemed to remember their part. (Privately, some soldiers say their real duty mantra is "Groundhog Day," because the routine at Camp Delta is so unchanging "you can't tell one day from the next.")

The last group of detainees arrived in July, and Camp Delta has capacity for 350 more prisoners than it currently holds. Nevertheless, KBR has another contract to build a new camp, Camp V, which will contain advanced interrogation facilities and room for 100 additional prisoners. Which begs the question: Whom are they expecting?

That question goes unanswered, as do most questions about Camp Delta. The U.S. government maintains that Camp Delta falls under neither the United States' nor Cuba's legal jurisdiction, and that enemy combatants have the protection of neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Geneva Convention. In November, after consolidating several cases before it, the Supreme Court announced that later this year it will consider whether detainees should have access to U.S. courts or continue to be held, as their lawyers' petition states, "indefinitely...without access to family, friends, or legal counsel, and with no opportunity to establish their innocence." According to human-rights groups, foreign officials, and statements from the few prisoners who've been freed, conditions at Guantanamo, particularly the detainees' uncertainty about their fate, have prompted a rash of suicide attempts. In addition, critics argue, it appears that many, perhaps most, inmates are not (as Joint Chief Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem has stated) "the worst of the worst [who] if let out on the street...will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans," but rather Taliban cannon fodder and other small fish.

The entire Guantanamo naval base comprises 45 square miles, including Camp America, the 1950s-style enclave where U.S. soldiers live, and which offers drive-in movies, cheap restaurants, and the blessed relief of air conditioning. True, one must keep up the pretense of staring down the Cubans, but Captain McCoy meets regularly with one of their generals, and the Cubans, who can see "80 to 85 percent" of what goes on at Gitmo from their watchtowers, have promised to return any detainees who might escape, McCoy says.

Camp Delta is isolated on an old gunnery range 100 yards from the Caribbean. Daytime temperatures can reach 100 degrees, and the sea breezes offer some relief to the men living in eight-by-seven-foot concrete and metalgated cells. Detainees are caged for all but two brief respites a week to bathe and exercise. They get three hot meals each day. Five times a day, the P.A. system broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer, and each cell contains a Koran, suspended by a surgical mask so as not to touch the ground, and a sign pointing to "Mecca." A green mesh curtain surrounds the compound, so visitors can't see in and prisoners can't see the ocean.

All detainees, according to Brig. General Mitchell R. LeClaire, a National Guard officer and deputy commander of JTFGTMO, are "terrorists, terrorist agents, or support terrorism," a designation made in Afghanistan before the detainees were sent to Guantanamo. But it is now clear that many detainees who didn't meet the necessary criteria were brought to Guantanamo anyway. The former operational commander of Guantanamo, Maj. General Michael E. Dunlavey, even traveled to Afghanistan in 2002 to complain that too many "Mickey Mouse" detainees were being sent his way.

Though many prisoners have been at Camp Delta for two years now, JTFGTMO still conducts 300 interrogations a week, says Maj. General Geoffrey D. Miller, the task force commander. A tough Army officer, Miller was quoted in an Associated Press interview last July as saying that three-fourths of the detainees had confessed some involvement with terrorism, and that their tips had led to additional arrests and knowledge of terrorist techniques. In November, however, he denied telling the A.P. any such thing, saying only that 80 percent of the detainees have been "cooperative" with interrogators. In any case, neither Miller nor the Bush administration has offered any credible evidence that intelligence from Guantanamo has had any value, or if given the amount of time prisoners have been isolated from Al Qaeda any information that might be gleaned from ongoing interrogations would still be valid.

Miller is credited with developing a carrot-and-stick methodology that rewards detainees who cooperate with better food, some of which is culturally familiar—like dates and pita bread—though McDonald's Happy Meals procured from Camp America have also reportedly proved to be a powerful incentive. Improved cooperation enables prisoners to move from maximum to medium security and on to a sort of honor society known as Camp 4. Good behavior alone can keep a prisoner out of maximum security, but moving to Camp 4 requires cooperating with interrogators. In Camp 4, prisoners eat together and are free to congregate and play soccer. A Mother Jones reporter was allowed to see these men but not talk to them. They wore white clothing instead of orange jumpsuits and, almost to a man, had cultivated the full beards common in their homelands.

Three boys between the ages of 13 and 15 live in a small separate prison called Camp Iguana, due to the prevalence of the reptiles. Illiterate when they got to Gitmo, the boys are guarded by a handpicked team of National Guardsmen including police officers with juvenile experience and a teacher who's tutoring them in Pashto. In August 2003, Miller said that they had been "kidnapped into terrorism" and had provided "some very valuable intelligence," and thus should be freed. But by November his recommendation had not been acted on, and the boys were still undergoing interrogation.

Though the United States maintains the Geneva Convention doesn't apply at Guantanamo, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross are allowed to speak to prisoners and act as an intermediary with their families. Typically, when dealing with prisoners of war (which the United States says these men are not), the Red Cross only airs serious criticisms that have gone unheeded by authorities. Last October, how ever, Red Cross officials broke their customary silence to say that lengthy detention without hope, trial, charges, or human contact outside of guards or interrogators has caused "a worrying deterioration" in the prisoners' mental health.

One in five Guantanamo detainees has been put on antidepressants, and 21 have tried to commit suicide a combined total of 32 times. The man who made the most serious attempt, according to Captain John S. Edmondson, the commander of the Naval Hospital, may not regain full use of his legs. "He won't play soccer again," said Edmondson, who claims that many detainees had emotional problems before being brought here. Terry Hicks, the father of Australian detainee David Hicks, says his son wrote that he was depressed and losing weight. Though Edmondson would not discuss Hicks by name, he said one detainee has been on an "intermittent" hunger strike. Interviews with guards indicated that preventing suicide has become a high priority. One such guard, military police Spc. Altrenna Thomas, a 26-year old African American thinking of going to law school, says she walks up and down the cell block, "keeping my eye on them."

Although the United States has refused to reveal even the names of detainees, some details have surfaced from other governments. There are nine British citizens, two Australians, six French, one Spaniard, a dozen Kuwaitis, and as many as 43 Pakistanis. Pressure from the British and Australian governments has prompted Bush to authorize British citizens Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbassi, Australian David Hicks, and three other unidentified men to stand trial before military tribunals. Miles from Camp Delta, an old base administration building is being converted into a courthouse, and bachelor officers' quarters are being enlarged for lawyers, journalists, and others who might attend. Pakistani officials say they've been told that four Pakistanis could be among those facing tribunals. "It will be difficult for us to defend them in a special military court," says Mohammad Sadiq, the Pakistani deputy chief of mission in Washington. "We have requested U.S. authorities to allow us to try them in a civil court in Pakistan."

The fate of the other 650 or so is an open question. Is there evidence to try them? Are they of any intelligence value? Should they be released to their home countries? Or, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has suggested, held until the end of the war on terror, whenever that is?

Dr. Najeeb bin Mohamed Ahmed al Nuaimi, the former justice minister of Qatar and head of the Arab Lawyers Committee charged with defending 95 detainees, says many had no connection with Al Qaeda or even the Taliban. They include an Al Jazeera cameraman captured by the Northern Alliance and several Afghani religious students. "The Afghan warlords in the Northern Alliance sold many wealthy Saudis back to Saudi Arabia for $10,000 and then sold Pakistanis to their friends and family for $3,000. They gave the Americans ones they couldn't sell," he says, mostly low-ranking soldiers or innocent people scooped up in the war. And as there is no chain of evidence, no one exploring specific allegations, he asks, "How can you say what they did in the battle? Are there witnesses to say who shot who?"

According to Sadiq, of the Pakistani mission, most detainees from his country "were religious-minded villagers instigated by the local mullah to help their Muslim brothers fight an invading army of non-Muslims." As the Taliban began to fall, and Taliban commanders joined the Northern Alliance, any accounting of who fought on what side was largely lost. Add to that the Pakistani soldiers who lined their pockets by acting as bounty hunters, and the U.S. military police in Afghanistan who were often just looking to get rid of troublesome prisoners, and it's no wonder that mistakes were made. (A man with a severe head wound known as "half-head Bob" was sent to Guantanamo despite his obvious inability to provide useful intelligence.) Detainees who've been released from Guantanamo—including farmers, kidnapped taxi drivers, a man in his 90s, and a deaf man who couldn't understand his interrogators—have consistently told reporters that they are innocent and that they were handed over by local Afghan commanders keen to appease the Americans or to settle personal scores.

But at least the 64 prisoners who've been released and those who await military tribunals have some hope of closure. Unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, the rest face a seemingly unending purgatory in what the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has called a "legal black hole."