The most infamous of the 380 remaining enemy combatants detained at the Joint Task Force-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility (JTF-GTMO) confessed to extensive terrorist activities, according to transcripts of his statements made during a recent hearing. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM, admitted masterminding 9/11, planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, assisting shoe-bomber Richard Reid in his attempt against American Airlines Flight 63, perpetrating in 2002 the Paradise Hotel car bombing in Kenya and attacks at Paddy’s Bar in Bali, and beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, as well as planning never-executed assassinations of two U.S. presidents and destruction of several major U.S. landmarks.
Some news commentators cast doubt on KSM’s confessions, citing his well-known penchant for braggadocio or arguing his comments were obtained after years of confinement and torture. Indeed, for many on Left, merely mentioning KSM’s detention at Gitmo is enough to conjure images of extensive and outrageous civil rights violations.
But that image is dramatically false as I recently discovered. As a media guest of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, I toured the base and detention facilities. I saw not the repetitious and stock images of chain link fences and huddled detainees, replayed over and over again in the media, but an efficient, well-run facility that provides care that surpasses even that given our own troops. I was privileged to meet some of the dedicated men and women who serve under the motto “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and learned of the stresses and dangers they face daily. Indeed, it is only Gitmo’s past, unfair reputation that keeps it from being considered a model detention center.
My Gitmo trip began on a warm, balmy evening aboard a low-flying 19-seat prop jet. The noisy, three-hour trip from Fort Lauderdale sans air conditioning, restroom facilities and snacks on Air Sunshine, one of only two commuter airlines to Gitmo, was made slightly more bearable with earplugs. About two months prior, I had requested a media visit, submitting a biography, descriptions of my organizational affiliations, copies of recently published articles, an equipment list, photo and vital statistics. Once I received clearance and subjected myself to five vaccinations, I was ready to tour the much-maligned, detention facility on the 45-square-mile U.S. military base in southeast Cuba.
The base at Guantanamo Bay that houses al Qaeda and Taliban-affiliated enemy combatants is run by Joint Task Force Gitmo (JTF-GTMO) in concert with the local Naval Station staff. JTF- GTMO is a combined service operation involving all branches of military service – the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Including the active Naval Station, the base population comprises approximately 6,000 service members, dependents, contractors, foreign nationals, civil servants and Cuban exiles. JTF-GTMO oversees detention, intelligence gathering, medical services, staff support and port security. Naval Station personnel provide logistical support to ships and aircraft in the Caribbean, support U.S. drug interdiction activities and conduct migrant surge operations.
Established in 1903, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is the oldest overseas U.S. military base and the only one in a Communist country. Following the Spanish-American War, the Cuban government leased the area to the United States. That lease was later formalized in a treaty that can be terminated only by mutual consent of both countries. Guantanamo has served as a fuel and supply base, a drug interdiction operations center and a migrant assistance and processing facility for Haitian and Cuban refugees. Since 2001, it has been an enemy combatant detention center for the Global War on Terrorism.
On my tour, the only other media representative was a Pakistani who broadcasts in Urdu for the BBC. We were met at the tiny airport by a media relations officer, one of a five-member team that would squire us through Gitmo. A quick ferry ride from the airstrip and we were on our way to what appeared to be a replica of a small U.S. town with a Subway, Starbucks, McDonalds, Navy Exchange, schools, gyms and fields. After checking into our quarters – pleasant two-story, two-bedroom townhouses – we were briefed by an Army lieutenant on permissible reporting and images. Acceptable were empty spaces, including cells, bays, recreation areas and courtrooms. Tight shots of detainees that obscured identifying features were also O.K. Strictly verboten were shots of unoccupied guard towers, radar domes and antenna arrays, as well as photos that indicated locations of sensitive facilities and coastline areas, plus pictures of specific troops, security checkpoints, the airport and military aircraft. Any intelligence gained from witnessing interrogations or interactions with Cuban and Haitian migrant personnel were not to be reported. The BBC reporter and I were informed that our photos would be checked daily to ensure compliance with Gitmo security regulations.
I felt honored to visit Gitmo and looked forward to an early departure next morning. Close to 200 members of Congress and their staff have visited Gitmo, as well as 1,000 journalists from around the world on more than 400 media visits. I was anxious to see for myself how detainees lived and were treated.
The next day, our tour began at Camp 1, a secure facility with 7 x 8 mesh cells equipped with a toilet and metallic sink. We were told Camp 1 detainees wear tan uniforms connoting their higher level of compliance than detainees wearing maximum-security orange. We viewed the clothes and comfort items given Camp 1 inhabitants including a prayer mat, skullcap and Koran in the detainees’ native language, plus a rubberized finger toothbrush, toothpaste in a clear container, soap, shampoo, plastic flip flops, underwear, shorts and shirt. Cups are discretionary items since they can be used for fecal cocktail attacks, our guide said. Meals are delivered through a small opening in each cell door through which detainees periodically try to injure guards by closing the opening or using a sharp object, we were told. In nearby exercise yards with adjacent shower facilities, detainees are permitted to play soccer.
Our tour guide displayed plastic cones with the letter “P.” These are placed on the floor of each detention facility to signify 20 minutes of uninterrupted quiet time during the five times daily broadcast calls to prayer. Guards receive Muslim “sensitivity training” and handle Korans only with gloved hands, our guide said. We saw a Koran hanging inside a surgical mask from the wall of each cell, plus, on each bunk, a painted arrow pointing toward Mecca.
At our next stop, the Camp Library, we met the librarian who periodically visits Gitmo inhabitants. Each detainee selects one book weekly from a surprisingly broad selection in 19 languages that includes fiction, biographies, politics and religious books about Mohammed and the prophets. The BBC journalist audaciously asked if the political books espoused a pro-American viewpoint. Much to his apparent satisfaction, he was told that the library selections include multiple political points of view.
At Camp 4, the detention facility for the most compliant Gitmo residents, good behavior and cooperation with the interrogation process earns detainees admission to this communal living arrangement and its white uniforms. We toured dormitories where detainees eat, sleep and pray together. They can study various subjects and work on gardening projects in separate classrooms. We saw ample recreational areas for board games and team sports and were told that detainees occasionally are permitted to watch Arabic television.
By contrast, the maximum security facilities at Gitmo, two-story structures modeled after U.S. state-of-the-art prisons, house the most dangerous detainees. A raised glass-enclosed control center sits above the cells where touch screens monitor detainee movement and control the facilities, including even shower-water flow. We observed detainees exercising outdoors by themselves in mesh enclosures. In one high-security building, I heard a detainee praying loudly in Arabic and repeatedly invoking the “Yahoud,” or Jew, in Arabic. It was chilling. I knew he couldn’t be saying anything good, and I was thankful he was behind a locked, steel door.
We were informed that all Gitmo detainees were apprehended on Afghanistan battlefields where they were deemed to have intelligence value and then transported to Gitmo for detention and further interrogation. Further, we were told that all Gitmo detainees are categorized as “enemy combatants.” Media relations staff explained that enemy combatants are differentiated from prisoners of war (POWs) in that they are non-state actors who do not belong to a recognized military unit, do not wear a uniform, do not bear arms openly and do not follow accepted rules for the conduct of war, specifically the safeguarding of civilians. The laws of war dictate that POWs are required to provide only their name, rank and ID number and may not be subject to interrogation. Still, the Geneva Conventions that apply to prisoners of war have been followed with detainees since Gitmo began operations.
A lieutenant on the media tour explained that enemy combatants housed at Guantanamo include terrorist recruiters, trainers, facilitators, financiers, explosives makers, Bin Laden associates and avowed martyrs. He told us that among the detainees are medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, pilots and computer specialists. Many have provided critical information that has helped U.S. soldiers in combat and anti-terrorist operations. The information has included the organizational structure and geographic distribution of terrorist groups, terrorist recruitment and training processes, use of explosive devices and poisons, funding of terrorist operations and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We were told that approximately one-third of Gitmo detainees are currently undergoing interrogation and are believed to possess intelligence value.
During a meeting with two Gitmo guards, we learned of the month’s worth of training they received before their year’s service at Gitmo. The training emphasizes teamwork and interpersonal skill building and includes role-playing of likely, on-the-job scenarios. The soldiers talked about learning about the cultures of Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries from which detainees come. They also described long, stressful shifts filled with personal threats and assaults, during which they rigorously adhered to operating procedures, conducting themselves professionally and maintaining a belief in their mission and the fight against terrorism. We were told that a large number of detainees are dangerous, pose a threat and have said they intend to continue to wage jihad. A diagram of disturbances for the past year showed over 3,000 incidents of detainee misconduct, including threats to military personnel, possession of contraband, assaults with bodily fluids, and physical assaults.
Our tour guide explained how detainees communicate with family and learn about current events. They receive and send mail, over 40,000 pieces since 2002, and read weekly international news reports. He pointed out enclosed bulletin boards in recreational areas, displaying news stories in multiple languages. We were also told of visits every six weeks by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a worldwide organization that monitors compliance with Geneva Conventions and assists with detainee-to-family communication.
On a behind-the-scenes tour of the commissary led by the head of food services, we were shown ample stores of a wide variety of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables. The area where the halal meat for detainees was stored was separate from the non-halal meat served to troops. Our tour guide told us that detainees receive the same food as Gitmo troops, but with more meal choices and a menu that changes more frequently. The six menu choices for detainees were displayed on a kitchen counter, and we were encouraged to sample the selections. Our guide mentioned that meal schedules and content are modified for Islamic holy periods such as Ramadan. The food was excellent. It was easy to see how detainees had gained an average of 18 pounds each during their detention.
Our next stop was the Gitmo Detention Hospital, a 20-bed, full-service modern medical facility with an outpatient clinic, two operating tables and a dental clinic. Five physicians, 20 nurses, a psychologist and a psychiatrist staff it. Interpreters in five languages assist with communication.
A psychologist led our tour of the modern, spotless medical facilities. We were told that detainees receive the same health care as base soldiers and their families and that the hospital logs 12,000 interactions with detainees per year, dispenses 400 medications per day, and performs 7,000 dental procedures annually, including six-month cleanings. Our guide recounted that when Gitmo first opened wound treatment was the primary care provided. Now, treatment centers on sports injuries, backaches and neck aches. He added that approximately nine percent of detainees use mental health services, which include counseling.
Approximately a dozen detainees are on hunger strikes at Gitmo, which prompts increased medical care, the psychologist said. After nine meals are missed, a detainee is evaluated at the medical clinic, counseled by a psychologist and subject to regular blood work and vital sign and weight checks. When deemed necessary by the medical staff, life support measures, such as insertion of a feeding tube, are initiated. Hunger strikes confer elevated status on detainees amongst their peers, the psychologist said, and once inside the medical facility, hunger strikers willingly consume liquid supplements.
The tour included the opportunity to sit in on the unclassified segment of an administrative review performed by the Office of the Administrative Review of Detention of Enemy Combatants or OARDEC. We were briefed on the detainee review process and informed that all detainees undergo a review process that includes a one-time detainee status classification, the Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), and an annual evaluation before an Administrative Review Board (ARB). The CSRT is used to determine if a detainee should be classified as an enemy combatant. Each detainee, even Al Qaeda operatives who don’t qualify for this procedure, is offered assistance from a military officer to prepare and deliver pertinent information to three neutral, U.S. military officers. CSRT determinations are governed by the “preponderance of evidence” standard.
The ARB process, given to all enemy combatants not pending Military Commission prosecution, assesses if detainees should be released, transferred or detained further. The decision is based on assessment of their intelligence value and the threat they pose. The ARB process, unprecedented in the history of war at a time of ongoing hostilities, is not required by Geneva Conventions.
The ARB that we observed on our tour was convened to consider the status of an enemy combatant affiliated with two groups associated with al Qaeda. The detainee in question refused to attend his review meeting, a not uncommon occurrence, and the evidence of his enemy combatant status was presented by three military officers.
Our guides discussed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and that Gitmo detainees linked to al Qaeda will face military tribunals. We were informed that the purpose of the military commission is to ensure the protection of military personnel, as well as the accused, and to prevent the release of classified and sensitive information. Each Military Commission consists of a presiding officer, who must be a judge advocate, plus three neutral military officers. E ach detainee is provided a full and fair trial with the following provisions: presumption of innocence, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, counsel provided at no charge, attorney-client privilege and the right to call and cross examine witnesses.
During our Gitmo tour, we heard about specific incidents, such as a planned attack, suicides and allegations of detainee abuse, that have occurred at the facility, despite the extreme precautions taken and the standardized procedures in place. We were told by one of the guards that in May 2006, a group of detainees in the minimum security, communal living section staged a suicide attempt to lure guards into the compound. When guards entered the cell block, they slipped on a floor covered with feces, urine and soap suds and were attacked with makeshift weapons. The guards regained control within six minutes using pepper spray, batons and shotguns with non-lethal rounds, without any reported injuries to detainees.
Also, in June 2006, three detainees with close ties to Middle East terrorist organizations hung themselves in their cells using sheets and clothing. The first detainees to die at the facility, they left suicide notes in Arabic. According to news reports, military officials described the suicides as attempts to gain attention and to manipulate world opinion. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the prison commander, said at the time that the suicides were “not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare against us.”
“Detainees are held at JTF-Guantanamo because they are dangerous and continue to pose a threat to the U.S. and our allies,” General Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, was quoted as saying at the time. “They have expressed a commitment to kill Americans and our friends if released. They are not common criminals, they are enemy combatants being detained because they have waged war against our nation and they continue to pose a threat.”
In a meeting with the Commander of JTF-GTMO, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, we were told that allegations of abusive treatment by Gitmo detainees were investigated by the FBI and detailed in the Schmidt Report, which concluded that over a three-year period “only three interrogation acts” were “in violation of interrogation techniques authorized by Army Field Manual 34-52 and DoD guidance.” The report “found no evidence of torture or inhumane treatment at JTF-GTMO.”
Interestingly, an 18-chapter Al Qaeda manual on waging jihad discovered by police in Manchester, England, which came to be known as the “Manchester document,” exhorts its operatives when in enemy custody to “insist on proving that torture was inflicted” and “to complain of mistreatment while in prison.”
At the time of the charges, Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed frustration with these tactics and said, “These detainees are trained to lie, they’re trained to say they were tortured, and the minute we release them or the minute they get a lawyer, very frequently they’ll go out and they will announce that they’ve been tortured.”
The lieutenant who was part of the Media Relations team conducting our tour, mentioned that in 2005, allegations were made by detainees that a U.S. serviceman flushed a Koran down the toilet. He compared the size of the Koran to the toilet opening to demonstrate that this was an impossibility. We were told that an extensive inquiry, including the review of over 30,000 documents and hard drives of both classified and unclassified materials, found no credible evidence of such an incident ever taking place. But the inquiry did uncover 15 incidents in which detainees mishandled the Koran, including using it as a pillow, tearing pages out and urinating on it.
Admiral Harris informed us that although the Geneva Conventions specify that enemy combatants may be warehoused and interrogated until “the cessation of active hostilities,” many Gitmo detainees have been transferred to other countries or released. Of the approximately 770 enemy combatants detained at Gitmo, about 390 have been set free or remanded to such countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, Russia, Britain and France.
In response to my question about released detainees returning to the fight Admiral Harris said that an estimated 30 former detainees, mainly from the upper echelon of terrorist groups, resumed terrorist activities as part of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. This despite signing pledges at the time of release to renounce violence. At least two former detainees are believed to have died fighting in Afghanistan and a third was captured during a raid of a terrorist training camp. One former Gitmo resident murdered a judge outside of a mosque in Afghanistan. A teenaged former detainee was recaptured after returning to fight with the Taliban. One Pakistani former detainee who carried a false Afghan identity card while at Gitmo returned to Pakistan as a Taliban commander.
Although Gitmo has been the site of espionage attempts by Muslim, U.S. military and civilian personnel, information on that was not provided during the tour. My additional research, once I returned home, revealed disturbing attempts to reveal classified information and compromise national security.
In 2003, Army Capt. James Yee, a Chinese-American Muslim convert since 1991 who served as a chaplain at Gitmo, was charged with espionage and pleaded guilty to transporting classified documents and lying to military investigators. To protect national security, charges against Yee were reduced to mishandling classified information and later dropped. According to a list obtained from terrorism expert Steven Emerson, Yee had ordered $26,000 worth of Arabic and English books, many of which espoused a radical Islamic ideology, for detainee use during his assignment to Gitmo.
Yee’s friend, Air Force translator and Syrian-born Muslim Ahmad al-Halabi pleaded guilty to transporting classified documents and lying to military investigators. A civilian interpreter, Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, who had attended an Army intelligence-training program in Arizona, was convicted of removing classified documents from Gitmo containing the names of Al Qaeda operatives mentioned during interrogations. Army Colonel Jack Farr, who formerly headed the prisoner interrogation unit at Gitmo, was charged with “wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security container.”
When the tour was over and I boarded the ferry to the airport for my return to the States, I thought about how the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been at the center of controversy since it began housing enemy combatants in 2002. From the very start, allegations of torture and inhumane treatment were raised by officials and members of the press who had never visited the facility. Even the United Nations and several countries, including Britain and Germany, called for its closure, claiming human rights violations sight unseen.
Yet, claims that Gitmo is inhumanely holding innocent people who are held indefinitely without legal recourse are patently false. Clearly, the facility houses dangerous enemy combatants who receive balanced meals, appropriate clothing and comfort items, good medical and dental care, generous recreational opportunities, yearly military board reviews, access to attorneys and visits from the Red Cross in a secure environment in strict accordance with Geneva Conventions.
Congressional Democrats who are demanding the closure of Gitmo and advocating that terrorists be held in mainland U.S. prisons are misguided. Ask former New York Metropolitan Correctional Center guard Louis Pepe, who was the unfortunate victim of an al Qaeda terrorist housed in a civilian prison. Pepe was blinded in one eye, partially paralyzed and has difficulty speaking as a result of a brutal one-hour attack with a sharpened comb purchased in the prison commissary.
Terrorists who have the will to decapitate and amputate, blow themselves up, fly planes into buildings, use women and children as human shields and shoot infants in the back are prepared to commit extreme acts of violence to escape confinement. Confining them to an offshore detainment facility in the middle of the ocean with a tyrannical dictator outside the gates is an ideal solution to a difficult problem.