“These were the ones who have been behaving themselves.” That’s the description many officers and non-coms at the Joint Task Force – Guantanamo gave of the detainees held in Camp IV, a sub-unit of the Camp Delta detention compound, during my recent visit to the facility. While ultra-modern Camp V is a maximum security facility based on the US Federal system, and Camps I, II, and III are composed on individual confinement cells, Camp IV is unique. It is a medium-security facility permitting communal living. Camp IV is designed to be a key component of a rewards and incentives program intended to encourage compliance among the detainee population.
Unlike the individual cells characteristic of the other camps, inside the wire at Camp IV detainees live in 10-man bays in 40-man blocks. They are free to eat together or pray together if they choose. They sleep in a communal bay, have virtually unlimited outside recreation time that they share with another 10-man bay, and can communicate among themselves and with the scores of other detainees living in adjourning bays and blocks in Camp IV. They have access to a brand new basketball goal with a concrete court, an enclosed soccer field, chess and checker boards, playing cards, and access to library books. Of course, they receive the entire religious support package composed of Koran, cap, oil, beads, and rug. At any given time upwards to 200 detainees live in Camp IV.
Of the original 800-plus enemy combatants who were transported to Guantanamo, in the turbulent, post Operation Enduring Freedom days from Afghanistan, fewer than 490 now are being held. Where are the rest? Transferred mostly, to their countries of origin. Many have been returned to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, France, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany among other countries. Some, like the Uighers, Chinese nationals but Islamic fundamentalist terrorists-in-training pledged to fight the Peoples Republic, were not returned to China. U.S. policy is not to return detainees to countries that might torture or execute them. So they remain at Guantanamo under benign conditions or get transferred to third countries. A week or so ago five Uighers were transferred to Albania which agreed to accept them. The Chinese are protesting and want them back on terrorism charges.
Other countries do take their nationals. Saudi is preparing to receive a group of 15 who were feted prior to departure on Wednesday, May 17. There was a celebration in the camp that night, agreed to well in advance by authorities. The entire camp had a lavish dinner menu consisting of curried chicken, brown rice, salad, ice cream, chocolate cake, baklava, and fruit. Detainees could eat all they wanted. Feasting lasted well into the night.
On Thursday in Camp I a disturbing incident occurred. Camp I is a made up of individual cells, separated by wire mesh so that detainees can converse and see each other, and to promote ventilation. Such a configuration also allows the detainees to pass small items between cells. Items like pills. At a detainee was discovered unconscious in his cell. After initial evaluation at the dispensary he was rushed to the main base hospital for treatment. Pharmaceutical drug overdose was suspected. Shortly thereafter two other cases of apparent or suspected drug overdose were discovered, one from Camp I another from Camp V. All three were evacuated to the hospital and placed under emergency care and suicide watch. Within the overall Camp Delta the three apparent suicide attempts triggered red flags.
Among the various departments – interrogation, detention, medical, and the command group – the alert was passed that something suspicious was happening. Everyone was alert that this was just the first of a calculated series of disturbances. Despite the fact that Camp IV contains the most compliant detainees - those who have demonstrated that they willingly comply with guards’ orders - command suspicion focused there. (It is important to contrast “compliant” with “cooperative.” The former behave well, the latter speak freely with interrogators. They are two highly distinct categories). Why? Because it is inside Camp IV that detainees have the freedom to come together in a group, and this access commanders knew could one day pose a serious threat. Moreover, there had been reports emanating from the blocks that some detainees were plotting to “act up” and capture a guard to murder him or her.
By Thursday evening Zulu block detainees in Camp IV were tense and restless. In reaction to the over doses, a camp-wide search for hidden prescription drugs had been underway since earlier in the day when the first OD’s had been discovered. Stashes of valium, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and other medications had been found secreted between the pages of Korans and in other hiding places, some in the detainees’ groin area, an area considered off limits to search because of religious reasons. As with all of these real or invented religious restrictions, the detainees take maximum advantage to deceive guards. In this instance Muslim assistants inspected the Korans, which the guards are not permitted to touch.
By late afternoon things across Camp IV were becoming tense. Detainees in Bay 1, Zulu Block, a ten-man unit, began “acting up” as they guards refer to miscreant behavior. They refused to come out of their 10-man bays and line up so that their bay areas could be searched. They claimed, falsely, that not even the Muslim employees could touch their Korans. They became defiant and ignored orders. The officer in charge, an American Naval ensign, urged them to comply, reminding them that in Camp IV they enjoyed maximum privileges compared to other camps. The detainees ignored his orders and his pleas. At last, attempting to use peer pressure, the officer urged neighboring compliant detainees in Whiskey block, known to be leaders, to persuade the Zulu block detainees to cooperate. All to no avail.
Because of the tense situation involved in the camp that afternoon the quick reaction force (QRF) had been positioned nearby. The QRF is a swat-team like group of highly trained Army enlisted guards led by a lieutenant. They are used if forced extraction from cells is required. They have helmets, face plates, and padded suits but no lethal weapons. They carry batons. The Navy officer in charge of Camp IV grew increasingly concerned. He was being tested. He requested the QRF move into the camp and deploy in position to react. His bold move may have saved lives.
At about 1800 hours, May 18, Zulu block exploded. Detainees smashed the iron floor fan that circulates air inside the bay, ripping it apart to make weapons. One detainee grabbed the pole that had held the fan in position and began to swing it wildly, deliberately smashing overhead security cameras inside the bay. The other detainees immediately threw feces, urine, and small objects at the guard watching them in his booth behind the wire mesh. With noxious material flying through the wire mesh he withdrew to a point where he could observe the disturbance and not be excessively hit.
Outside the alarm sounded. From all over Camp Delta officers, NCOs, and soldiers ran to assist at Camp IV. Inside the camp the door accessing Bay 1, Zulu Block was locked electronically. Meanwhile, many other detainees in Zulu began to join with their “brothers” in Bay 1. The QRF replaced Navy guards and positioned itself outside of the door. At that critical moment the beleaguered observer outside Bay 1 then called a “Snowflake” alert. Snowflake is a code word for a possible detainee suicide. The observer had seen a detainee fashion a noose from clothing and act as if he were going to hang himself.
Another group of guards moved up along side the observer and taking advantage of the open mesh wire fired pepper gas spray into Bay 1. The pepper gas was blown into the back of the bay in an effort to stop the man from hanging himself. Under those circumstances, given the seriousness of the situation, the QRF could not simply let the detainees wear themselves out. It had no choice but to enter the bay to prevent the suicide.
On signal, a guard flipped a switch and the electronic lock was tripped. Yanking the door open the QRF raced inside. At this point as one of the guards told me, “we had no choice. We had to come out of there with 10 detainees. Anything less would have empowered the detainees and encouraged them to act out more.” So ten American guards and ten detainees were set to tangle in a space littered with ripped up bunks, shattered light fixtures, and broken fans, all of which had been turned into makeshift but very lethal weapons in the hands of men who are by their own admission committed to kill Americans.
The order came to the QRF: “Enter and take them down.” The detainee ambush on American guards was triggered as the QRF entered the kill zone.
The first two Americans, armed only with batons, lost their footing and slipped to the floor in the disgusting mess the detainees had created expressly for that purpose. A witch’s brew of feces, urine, and soap suds coated the floor making a slippery, revolting mess. Immediately the detainee feigning suicide jumped from his bunk and joined his fellows in assaulting the guards on the floor. Using blades torn from the rotating fan, sharp glass objects from light fixtures, and pieces of the fan as bludgeons and knives they attempted to kill a guard. This had clearly been their intent from the outset. Despite the whine from apologists, this disturbance was not a protest but a calculated military action: an ambush. Knowing that the Americans would not let a suicide attempt proceed unhindered the detainees used the suicide ruse to lure the QRF into the kill zone.
Outside an alert, gutsy sergeant saw what was happening. Ignoring the rest of the QRF that was trying to enter the Bay, the detainees were focused over one guard, doing their damnest to kill him. The sergeant, in an act of enormous personal and professional courage given possible command repercussions, ordered the use of non-lethal munitions. This was the first instance of these kinds of rubber bullets ever being used at Guantanamo. Five shots later, the rubber bullets along with one larger “sponge” pellet from a shotgun-like weapon, convinced the murderous detainees that the Americans were serious. The assault was quelled. The QRF emerged, reeking of feces and bloodied but largely unharmed, escorting ten flex-cuffed rioters who remarkably suffered nothing more serious than minor scrapes and bruises.
Escort teams that had been waiting in the heat outside Camp IV lined up to shackle and remove detainees to individual cells in Camp 2/3. There detainees, back in non-compliant orange jump suits, could contemplate their lost comfort items and lost freedom they had enjoyed in Camp IV. More importantly the American soldiers and sailors guarding the “worst of the worst” at Camp Delta in Guantanamo were assured that they could control any disturbance and do so in a manner that prevented harm to detainee or guard. For the next two days morale soared among the camp personnel as they realized that they had almost flawlessly carried out a most critical, visible mission under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It was a needed boost for these men and women who are more often slandered, libeled, and scorned by media and politicians alike.
Our men and women serving at Guantanamo are tough, well-trained, highly motivated, and astoundingly, willingly accept the thankless mission to which they have been assigned. They place themselves in harm’s way every day, enduring verbal abuse and noxious assaults by detainees, so that we may sleep soundly at night. They do a job few of us would be willing or able to do. They are a nexus in the War on Terror. Be proud of them. Be very proud.
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