Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
The mood is grim as we descend on Guantanamo Bay and the unnerving shudder of our turboprop plane as it tilts toward the runway isn't even the chief concern. I'm traveling with a contingent of lawyers for the detainees, and the three-hour flight from Florida has felt like an extended trial at the detention facility, complete with a unanimous guilty verdict. Summarizing the hostile consensus, a blond-haired lawyer from San Diego mutters something about a "black hole."
He's not entirely wrong. In the deep blackness of the Caribbean night, Guantanamo, outlined by a thin garland of a landing lights, does have the feel of a geographical nowhere. But it's on the ground that the view of Gitmo as a land beyond law, where the most obscene cruelties are routinely visited upon harmless innocents, breaks down completely.
Case in point is the notorious Camp X-Ray. In 2002, the camp became a stand-in for the alleged horrors of Guantanamo Bay when pictures of detainees in orange jump suits, kneeling and handcuffed, became public. Up close, the camp is indeed intimidating. A sprawling expanse of decaying sheds and weed-choked confinement cells, X-Ray would make an easy target for anyone seeking proof of American neglect and abuse. Inconveniently for this caricature, the camp was shut down a mere months after it was opened in 2002; it has stood abandoned ever since. Today, the camp's sole residents are butterflies, lizards and an improbably menacing creature called a banana rat.
Of the camps currently in use, none come close to justifying the concerns of the Gitmo's critics, let alone Amnesty International's feverish judgment that it is the "gulag of our time." Visiting Camp 4, Gitmo's medium-security compound, one can see detainees walking about freely. And though the fact that many of the detainees wear unruly, Islamic beards is slightly disconcerting, it is consistent with the military's intention to make their detention as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
Toward that purpose, Camp 4 offers a number of diversions, courtesy of American taxpayers. There is an outdoor basketball court, and a 6,000-book library, from which detainees can check out everything from hobby magazines like Bird Watcher's Digest, to commentaries on Islam, to Agatha Christie thrillers. The latter come complete with white stickers blocking the author's photo, lest the detainees deem the grande dame of the mystery novel too much of a seductress. "By western standards it wouldn't be very offensive, but [the detainees] would have a problem with that," explains Julie, Gitmo's head librarian, somewhat apologetically. Detainees can also check out DVDs--nature documentaries and international soccer matches are particularly popular--and a flat-screen television is available at the camp for viewing. And, just as American troops stationed on the base can take academic and vocational courses, Camp 4 has a special classroom where detainees can learn English, Arabic, or Pashtu.
Special care is taken to allow detainees to practice their religion, which is invariably Islam. A kit of provisions issued to Camp 4 inmates includes not only bare necessities like a toothbrush and a uniform, as well as luxuries like prescription glasses and electric razors on selected days, but also prayer beads and oils, and a Koran that guards are under no circumstances permitted to handle. It is a measure of the deference--one might even say reverence--shown to the Muslim holy book that the military doesn't even provide a sample copy on a display table of representative items shown to journalists. "Out of respect," explains an officer in charge of Camp 4, who declines to be identified for security reasons.
Less hospitable conditions might be expected in camps 5 and 6, Gitmo's maximum-security complexes. To some extent, that is the case. With a narrow bed, a metal sink, and a small slit for a window, the cells in Camp 5 are no one's idea of paradise. Within those confines, however, the detainees are granted substantial privileges. Climate controlled, the cells come equipped with a communications system that allows detainees to talk to the guards. Beneath the beds, one finds stenciled arrows pointing to Mecca, and detainees can elect their own imams, or prayer leaders--a concession that may well favor more extreme elements in the detainee population but which the military is nonetheless determined to grant.
Perhaps the most curious room at Camp 5 is furnished with a plush blue couch for the detainees. Were it not for the leg restraints at its foot, one might never guess that this is where interrogations take place. Of the steel-floored cells were detainees are alleged to be beaten for information there is not a trace of violence. Those who consider Gitmo an affront to international law might also be surprised to learn that Camp 5's recreation yard not only has news bulletins from the Middle East but also a prominently displayed copy of the Geneva Conventions. While Gitmo is not officially governed by the treaties, the military makes every effort to make sure that detainees are treated in accordance with them. There is even a so-called "habeas room" for detainees to meet with their counsel. A gulag, plainly, this is not.
Even Camp 6, home to the most dangerous of Gitmo's approximately 275 detainees, confounds the image of excessive confinement and ubiquitous brutality with which the naval base has come to be identified. True, the recreation facilities here are smaller and indoors, and the two-hour (minimum) exercise time less generous, but it would take a willful disregard of the evidence to see it as a U.S.-run "concentration camp." Not the least of the reasons for that is that the military guards on duty here, as in other Gitmo camps, go out of their way to minimize the use of force. Trained to contain a mass riot, the guards actually spend most of their time trying to diffuse confrontation. "It doesn't have to get physical," insists Shawn Johnson, a guard at Camp 6.
Indeed, it doesn't even have to get loud. Out of consideration for the detainees' religious practices, interrogations cease and Gitmo's guards honor a silence throughout the camps during prayer times. "We still walk the pods and observe the detainees but we don't talk to each other and we try to be quiet on our feet. There's no antagonizing [the detainees]," Johnson explains.
If the idea of Gitmo's guards laboring to avoid giving offense to terrorist suspects is surprising, the medical facilities here are another revelation. Staffed by dentists, internal medicine practitioners, psychiatrists, nurses, and even special translators that do not interact with guards, the detainee hospital provides top-level care 24 hours a day. That includes access to a pharmacy, which distributes some 400 medications daily, as well as a state-of-the-art radiology room, complete with CAT scan capabilities. (Images are transferred to the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Virginia, and can be analyzed within 24 hours.) In 2006, when a detainee needed a complex neurological procedure called a laminectomy, an expert was brought in to perform it. The operation was completed within 30 hours.
About the only way that detainees can be denied medical care is if they refuse it. It's a choice few of them make, though there are some problem cases. One detainee is currently refusing to take a blood test in protest over his treatment. "He wants warmed bottled water instead of room temperature or cold bottled water," the hospital's senior medical officer explains. Such are the injustices with which detainees must contend.
This is not to deny that abuse is a problem Gitmo. It's just that most of it is done by the detainees. "The only mistreatment that goes on inside the camps is detainees on guards, and the guards absorb it without retribution," says Army Brigadier General Greg Zanetti, Gitmo's deputy commander. Zanetti notes that while many of the detainees have been here for five to six years, more than enough time to discover the best way to harass their captors, many of the guards are just weeks or months into their post. "For a while there, it's an unfair match," Zanetti says.
Underscoring the general's point are some disturbing figures. In 2006, for instance, there were over 3,000 recorded incidents of detainee misconduct, instances which included 432 assaults with bodily fluids, 227 physical assaults, and 99 efforts "to incite a disturbance or riot." That certainly suggests that Gitmo is a dangerous place, just not in the way its detractors imagine.
Where the military may be legitimately faulted is in allowing the stereotype of Gitmo as a human-rights dystopia--the proverbial "black hole"--to endure. One source of conflict stems from the fact that, in contrast to journalists, lawyers for the detainees are not granted tours of Gitmo's camps. It is not surprising, then, that the more outrageous claims about the treatment of the detainees and the conditions inside the camps more generally issue from those least familiar with them. One woman, a lawyer from Denver representing several Yemeni detainees, was genuinely surprised to learn that the cells in Camp 5 were not nearly as small as she had imagined, and that the air conditioning was not in fact set to freezing. At least some of this confusion might be avoided if the military granted more access to visitors.
Gitmo's military administrators would also do public discourse--to say nothing of national security--a large favor if they dispelled the myth, accepted as gospel truth in some political precincts, that the detainees here have no connection to terrorism. To take just one example, a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, released in 2007 and conducted between 2004 and 2005, found that 73 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo were a "demonstrated threat" to American troops. Meanwhile, 95 percent of Guantanamo's prison population was at least a "potential threat," with many detainees having participated in jihad against the United States or otherwise associated with terrorist organizations. No fewer than 92 percent of the detainees had connections to terrorist groups like al Qaeda, the Taliban, and similar groups. That this isn't better known is arguably the most serious failing of Guantanamo Bay's command.
With even the Bush administration offering defenses of Gitmo that sound suspiciously like apologies, the task of setting the record straight is a daunting one. But General Zanetti welcomes the challenge. "We hope to do it one step at a time and hope that it will percolate through the system," he says. His strategy: "Do your duty. Tell the truth. And let the chips fall where they may." That may sound too simple. But considering how little the United States has to apologize for in Cuba, honesty may indeed be the best policy.