Despite often hysterical rhetoric to the contrary from America’s Islamofascist enemies, human rights organizations, and Democratic senators, the policy for handling of the terrorist detainees at Guantanamo has always been “safe, humane treatment consistent with force protection.” In other words, the detainees, while definitely not accorded Geneva Convention rights, were in fact given treatment that often exceeded that agreed to under that convention. They were treated in a manner that made their safety and the safety of the guards top priority.
For the past several years there were moves afoot to give more privileges to those detainees who demonstrated what was defined by the Joint Task Force command as “compliant behavior.” What this meant was not, as I learned to my surprise during my first trips, contingent on how much information of intelligence value a detainee shared with his captors, but simply how he obeyed the instructions of the guards. In other words, many of the detainees identified as “the worst of the worst” fit the definition of compliant behavior. They may not have told the interrogators squat but they did what the guards said and hence were given more latitude.
Two of the Camp Delta facilities, Camps I and IV, were in fact reserved for compliant detainees. These detainees received the maximum in the way of comfort items (CI in the always-eager-to-abbreviate tradition of the military) and the most latitude in the way of communal recreational privileges. In Camp IV, for example, the detainees slept in 10-man bays and were allowed to spend most of the day in two-bay, 20-man groups. During this communal time it has been learned they ate together, prayed together, and plotted to kill Americans together.
Interrogation subsequent to the alarming events of summer 2006 have disclosed that in the benign, “compliant” atmosphere of Camp IV qualified detainees were giving weapons classes to those less sophisticated in military matters. Detainees learned how to lay and fire a mortar, handle small arms, and carry out small unit tactics. No, the detainees did not have actual weapons but they did as much as they could with simulation, and as every soldier knows, that sort of training can be the next best thing. General George Patton’s army in 1941 drilled across Louisiana with trucks bearing hand-painted signs that said “tank,” and with infantrymen carrying wooden rifles. But that didn’t stop that army from eventually racing across North Africa and Europe and burying Nazis by the tens of thousands along the way.
Camp IV – a compromise with the detainees intended to extend humane treatment as far as possible – became the hotbed of internal rebellion. In 2004 detainees planned an “escape.” They were going to hijack a chow truck – in those days food was brought into the camp by truck and distributed to the five Blocks of 40 men each. They were not, as one might naively expect, going to try to crash through the fence into Cuba to try to get back into the jihad. Rather, they were going to resume the fight right where they were. They eschewed a real escape and planned instead to try to kill guards with the vehicle and with whatever weapons they could fabricate or steal from the dead and injured American soldiers. This plan was foiled when a detainee who realized that these people were suicidal nuts disclosed the plot to authorities who foiled it.
A year later, in the summer of 2006 two detainees in Camp I (again, home of the “most compliant”) and one in Camp V tried to commit suicide by overdosing on drugs that had been collected and hoarded by fellow detainees and passed on to them. None of the three was on any medications. While medics worked feverishly to save them (successfully) and the camps were shaken down by soldiers for other contraband, of which a significant amount was uncovered, the “compliant” detainees in Camp IV decided that they would resist search.
After failing to be dissuaded from “acting up” as inappropriate behavior is termed, many Camp IV detainees erupted and tore their bays apart. In Bay 1, Zulu Block, a detainee faked a suicide by hanging. That brought an immediate response as American soldiers risked life and limb to try to save him. It was all a ruse. Lead members of the response team slipped and fell in an entry way lubricated with soapy water, feces, urine, and vomit. Detainees jumped them with home-made weapons intending to kill them. Only quick, mature response from non-commissioned officers and officers on the spot prevented an ugly incident from becoming a tragedy. For the moment, order was restored.
Within weeks three detainees in Camp I, also “compliant,” successfully duped the guards and in the early hours of a dark morning hanged themselves in their cells. The detainees had succeeded finally in creating the martyrs they hoped would win their release.
But the new commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, would have none of it. He and his subordinate commanders decided that the policy of increasing detainee freedom with increasing compliance was a big mistake. As Harris succinctly puts it, “There is no such thing as a medium security terrorist.” So, he immediately instituted new operating procedures.
One of the first actions was to look hard at plans for the ultra-modern Camp VI, then in final stages of construction. Originally Camp VI – modeled on a country prison in Michigan – was designed to accommodate quite a lot of mixing and socializing. Detainees were to be kept on two levels, the second story open in a mezzanine-type arrangement overlooking a common area that included several picnic-style tables and storage units. Detainees were going to be allowed to eat, pray, and commune together. Planners envisioned relatively content, compliant detainees playing board games, discussing the more esoteric passages in the Koran, and comparing information from their habeas attorneys in the pleasant, well-lighted, open spaces of the communal bay.
The suicides forced a hard look at that arrangement. In light of the absolute commitment to jihad that most of these detainees hold, one can easily imagine a dozen or more jumping to their deaths on the concrete floor from the second deck, or rigging an impromptu noose and flipping over the low railing. That would be in direct contravention to the basic policy of “safe, humane treatment.”
Hence Camp VI has been retrofitted with higher rails, wire mesh up to the ceiling and regulations that forbid group activities. Want to be compliant? Fine, you get the extra CI ,but you don’t have the ability to conduct jihad training or to plot to attack and kill American guards. Fair enough.
The treatment in Guantanamo is still exceedingly humane and safety oriented. But realities of the situation demanded a change in policy. Now the procedures – while still exceedingly generous to sworn enemies – are much more realistic about the kind of enemy confined there post the dangerous summer of 2006. Detainees will undoubtedly still try to harm themselves but such efforts will only succeed in spite of, not because of, updated command policies.
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