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Guantanamo. A Holding Cell In War on Terror Prison Represents a Problem That's Tough to Get Out Of

Washington Post
by Scott Higham, Joe Stephens and Margot Williams
May 2, 2004


GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The newest prison in the war on terrorism is a multi-winged $31 million complex of gray concrete and steel designed to hold 100 captives for years to come. It stands in stark contrast to the original detention camp here, a collection of chain-link cages used two years ago to hold suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters caught when their sanctuary in Afghanistan collapsed.

Next week, officials will gather at the U.S. Navy base on this parched crescent of land in the Caribbean to commemorate the opening of the new facility, known as Camp 5. The new building signals permanence. It also signifies a problem yet unsolved.

While U.S. officials continue to see this patch of scrub encircled by brilliant blue water as the perfect place to hold prisoners in a war seemingly without end, the facility has evolved into a prison of sorts for the administration. It was easy to get in, but it is proving vexingly difficult to get out.

Today, the government remains responsible for about 600 detainees at the base, half of whom Pentagon officials would send back if they could obtain proper security guarantees from foreign governments. One hundred forty-seven detainees have been returned to their home countries. Six of the 600 have been designated to stand trial before military tribunals. Many of the detainees have been in custody for two years. Only a handful have seen a lawyer, and two have been formally charged.

The open-ended detentions have been condemned by foreign governments and human rights groups and are now being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by early summer. Some government advisers involved in the evolution of the prison camp are questioning the decision to indefinitely detain the men as enemy combatants, rather than classifying them as prisoners of war.

There are strains with close allies, including Britain. The Saudi government has carried complaints directly to President Bush and has grown frustrated by the lack of progress. "They are in a bind, and they don't know how to get out of it," said a senior Saudi official, who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

U.S. officials counter that they are making changes and releasing captives as quickly as possible, while trying to keep the world safe from terrorist attacks. "We freely admit we're learning this as we go along," said Paul W. Butler, who supervised detainee operations and is now a special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "There were no blueprints for this."

The tale of how the Pentagon reached this point is a chronicle of a cascading series of decisions, made on the fly in the face of tremendous pressure. It is a narrative marked by bold moves and false starts, psychological warfare between guards and inmates, threats and incentives, allegations of mistreatment and pleas from families whose loved ones have been gone for months or years without explanation.

Some of the released detainees contended they were treated harshly and forced to falsely confess. But those reports remain unconfirmed, and members of Congress who have visited the base praised the humaneness of the captives' treatment and the professionalism of the troops.

Much of what has happened at Guantanamo has been shrouded in government secrecy, with most of the prison off-limits, detainee interviews prohibited and the names of the captives kept confidential. The Washington Post spent three months examining "Gitmo," touring portions of the prison camp and interviewing the military officials in charge, U.S. and foreign diplomats, congressional staffers, administration advisers and others with firsthand knowledge of the prison camp.

Using news accounts and information from lawyers and Web sites, the newspaper also compiled the largest public list of detainee names, encompassing 370 out of the 745 or so men detained at the camp since January 2002. Most of the detainees identified by name come from countries where al Qaeda has its deepest roots: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. The largest contingent comes from the country that supplied most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers: Saudi Arabia.

Twenty-six days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States began bombing attacks in Afghanistan, whose Taliban government had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his followers. Soon, U.S. troops were rounding up hundreds of ragtag soldiers and suspected terrorists on the battlefield. Other captives were being turned over by Afghan warlords.

The Pentagon wanted to put the captives out of circulation and find out what they knew.

Exactly how to do that raised novel legal questions for lawyers at the White House, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the CIA. Should Taliban fighters be granted prisoner-of-war status? What about suspected members of al Qaeda? And where would the military hold the men?

There was little debate over how to classify those suspected of fighting for al Qaeda. The terrorist group was not a country and had never been a party to the Geneva conventions. Moreover, al Qaeda members intentionally killed civilians. Suspected terrorists captured by U.S. forces, the lawyers agreed, should be classified as enemy combatants and not given legal status as prisoners of war.

The status of Taliban fighters was less clear. Some lawyers reasoned that Afghanistan had signed the Geneva conventions and that the Taliban was recognized by some nations as a legitimate government, though not by the United States. These lawyers thought the Taliban fighters should be granted prisoner-of-war status, entitling them to certain rights and protections.

Other lawyers disagreed, arguing that the Taliban fighters should also be classified as enemy combatants.

"They were basically a criminal gang," said a former Justice Department lawyer who participated in the strategy sessions and requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of the deliberations. "They massacred civilians. They summarily executed prisoners. If people violate the core notion of the law, they shouldn't receive prisoner-of-war status. It's reserved for honorable warriors."

That argument prevailed.

The lawyers turned to identifying a detention site that would be outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. legal system, safe from attack and quiet enough for focused interrogations. Prison ships were considered. So were remote Pacific islands and the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where the United States operates a military base under a lease with Britain.

Diego Garcia would have required agreements with the British, and Asian locations were deemed too vulnerable. Planners winnowed their list to include a military facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Alcatraz, the infamous island prison turned tourist attraction in San Francisco Bay, said Mark R. Jacobson, a former Pentagon official who helped devise the detention operation.

A more attractive choice remained.

The U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay is the country's oldest overseas military installation. It dates to 1903, when the U.S. government leased 45 square miles from Cuba to establish a refueling station. Thirty-one years later, the two nations signed an open-ended agreement granting the United States use of the land and waterways. The U.S. government pays Cuba about $4,000 a year.

Over the years, Gitmo had served as a port for Navy ships, a holding facility for Haitian and Cuban refugees, and an operations base for U.S. drug interdiction efforts. The government lawyers reasoned that the base was beyond the reach of U.S. courts and could be easily defended. The remote location and the unlikelihood of escape or rescue could also put psychological pressure on the captives, adding to their "desperation" and compelling them to talk, said Jacobson, who is now a visiting scholar at Ohio State University.

The Bush administration approved the plan.

On Jan. 11, 2002 -- four months to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- a military transport plane touched down at Guantanamo, taxiing alongside a cavernous hangar resembling an old-style roller skating rink. Twenty suspected terrorists and fighters were on board that day. Over the next 10 days, five more planes would bring 140 more captives.

The men were taken to Camp X-Ray through two rows of chain-link fencing topped with razor wire. Unpainted plywood shacks on wooden stilts served as guard towers. A plywood hut doubled as a command center and a place for soldiers to escape the Caribbean sun. The captives were escorted to the cages, each 8 feet by 8 feet. Constructed on slabs of concrete and covered with sheets of metal and wood, the collection of padlocked cages looked like an oversize dog kennel.

A Navy photographer took pictures that were transmitted around the world. Louise Christian, a human rights lawyer in London, recalled seeing the images flash across her television screen.

"I was aghast," Christian said.

One picture showed the captives at Camp X-Ray, shackled and clad in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in the dirt and gravel. The military had strapped muffs over their ears, surgical masks over their mouths and goggles spray-painted black over their eyes. Authorities described the gear as necessary for security during the long plane trip from Afghanistan.

The photographs touched off international protests. A British tabloid declared on its front page: "Torture!"

An infuriated Bush administration went on the offensive. "These are the worst of a very bad lot," Vice President Cheney said.

Human rights groups pressured Britain and other countries that had citizens held at Guantanamo to take a stand. The families of men who went missing during the Afghan war began calling lawyers such as Christian. "The outrage was sparked by those original images," she said.

The differences between the old and new camps were striking.

"X-Ray was a very primitive camp. It was extremely hard on the soldiers. They were put in tents right next to it. They never had an escape from the wire. The chanting and name-calling continued into the night. They had no relief," he said. "It was also hard on the detainees. The location was further away from the shore, and the less air flow, the hotter it became."

In November 2002, VanNatta was put in charge. By then, there were more than 600 detainees from 42 countries, and Camp Delta was experiencing difficulties.

Military police officers were not trained to work in what had become a maximum-security prison. There was no classification system at the camp -- cooperative captives were commingled with hard cases. There were few consequences for bad behavior.

Factions had also formed in the camp, and detainees were accumulating power. Leaders of the factions were intimidating other captives, threatening to harm their families if they cooperated, VanNatta said. Feces and mixtures of toothpaste and soap were flung at MPs and at detainees suspected of providing information. Detainees stopped up toilets and backed up sewage lines with clothing and pieces of plastic meal containers, creating fetid pools of waste that stewed in the heat of the sun.

Detainees vowed to kill the MPs and their families. Name tags and unit insignias on the MPs' uniforms allowed captives to identify their home regions. The captives called out to the MPs using their last names, threatening to dispatch terrorists to their homes in the United States, VanNatta said.

To bolster security, the chain-link fences of Camp X-Ray were replaced with thick, wire-mesh walls at Camp Delta. Each cell contained a squat-style flush toilet, a blanket, some prayer beads, a Koran and black, spray-painted arrows on the steel bunks pointing the way to Mecca. While conditions had improved, the captives could still communicate by talking through the open-air cages. They discussed who they believed was cooperating, and plotted threats and intimidation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had largely refrained from publicly criticizing the camp for fear of losing access to the detainees. But on Oct. 9, 2003, a series of suicide attempts prompted the organization to announce that it was troubled by the "deterioration in the psychological health of a large number" of prisoners. "One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely."

By then, there had been 32 suicide attempts by 21 captives.

The most serious involved a captive from Saudi Arabia last year, said Najeeb Nuaimi, a former justice minister of Qatar who is representing the families of dozens of prisoners. The Saudi was attending school in Pakistan when he was seized in a raid by U.S. and Pakistani forces, Nuaimi said. The man was interrogated and then flown to Guantanamo, where he told authorities he was not a terrorist and had not fought for the Taliban.

"He tried to tell them he would try to kill himself, 'if you don't release me.' " Nuaimi said. "They didn't listen."

The man wrote a letter saying goodbye to his family and tied a makeshift noose around his neck in his cell. MPs cut him down. But he suffered a brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma. The Pentagon considered sending him home, Nuaimi said, but the man's relatives decided that his best chance for recovery rested with the doctors at Guantanamo. He has since come out of the coma and has been slowly regaining his ability to talk and walk with the help of physical therapists. He can now dictate letters to his family, Nuaimi said.

VanNatta said he was concerned by the growing number of suicide attempts.

"If you have no idea what's going to happen to you, that's extremely stressful," he said. "But if the mission is to collect intelligence and get information that is beneficial to our side, then despair and depression may be a good thing."

Some attempts were made by men who were truly despondent, he said. But the vast majority appeared to have been feigned, designed to curry favor with faction leaders. Other captives knew that they would be moved closer to an MP station on the cell block after a suicide attempt, where they could overhear conversations and possibly collect intelligence, VanNatta said.

He said changes at the camp, coupled with a requirement that MPs enter cells during suicide attempts without waiting for response teams, lowered the number of attempts. Over time, the camp also borrowed tricks from U.S. prisons, such as swapping standard military blankets -- which can be twisted into garrotes -- with foam-like blankets that rip when they are twisted or stretched.

A reward system was established -- a "disciplinary incentive matrix" that is used in many U.S. prisons. After 30 days of good behavior, detainees could be moved to less restrictive camps that offer perks, such as communal meals and soccer games. Cooperation could earn games of checkers or chess, a religious-themed novel or two desserts at dinner.

Allowing cooperative detainees to swap their bright-orange coveralls with white ones, which look more like traditional Afghan garb, became one of the most productive incentives. MPs make a show of carrying the white clothing through a cellblock, then parading the newly outfitted detainees through the facility.

"It's a big deal for them," said Jacobson, the former Pentagon official.

The new system also improved the flow of intelligence, VanNatta said. "We may have stopped some terrorist attacks."

But interrogation experts, psychologists and military lawyers say promises of favors and better treatment can lead captives to concoct tales. "It appears to create a tremendous motive to give the investigators and interrogators what they want," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, a military lawyer assigned to defend a captive suspected of being a bodyguard of bin Laden.

Sundel's client, Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul of Yemen, has been in solitary confinement at what is called Camp Echo. Sundel said he is concerned that detainees such as al Bahlul may fabricate stories to obtain better treatment.

Camp Echo is off-limits to most visitors. Some who have been there describe it as a collection of small, one-story "sea huts" divided into two rooms. Inside each, a single captive is kept in a cage, guarded by an MP 24 hours a day.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan has been held at Camp Echo since December 2003, court records show. He allegedly admitted that he served as a driver on bin Laden's farm in Afghanistan. His lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, argues that the planned military tribunals are unconstitutional and that Bush needs congressional approval for them to proceed.

To help examine the case of his client, Swift brought in Daryl Matthews, a psychiatry professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who visited Guantanamo last year as part of a Pentagon medical team.

After reviewing a sworn statement by Hamdan, Matthews wrote in an opinion filed in court that the captive was let out for exercise only three times a week. Matthews added that Hamdan was becoming increasingly despondent over his situation.

The conditions of his confinement make Mr. Hamdan particularly susceptible to mental coercion and false confession," Matthews wrote.

U.S. Army Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who commanded the detention operation until recently, dismissed speculation about false confessions and bad information. He said that each piece of information is vetted by a variety of domestic and foreign intelligence sources and databases, and that 90 percent of the intelligence ultimately proves to be valid. Miller is now in charge of the detainee operation in Iraq, where 8,000 prisoners are being held and six American soldiers have been charged with mistreating some of the captives.

The sessions are not videotaped or tape recorded, Miller said. The interrogations are designed primarily to yield intelligence, not evidence for a court, he said, adding that taping "causes us legal problems." Detainees might gain access to tapes through court proceedings. "Then, it becomes exculpatory," Miller said.

Tiger Team members may not hit or slap a detainee, said Jacobson, the former Pentagon official, who has observed some of the sessions. In fact, the most effective interrogations involve establishing rapport, not intimidation. For example, Jacobson said, an interrogator may praise a detainee's ingenuity in designing a particular bomb. "Interrogation is not screaming at someone for hours," he said.

In one case, an interrogator used a blackboard to list every counterintelligence technique employed by a particular detainee -- such as staring intently at a wall to block out his questioner's voice. Next to each technique, the interrogator listed the page number in a standard al Qaeda manual from which the technique was taken. The detainee eventually lost his composure and smirked, Jacobson said, and a tenuous bond was achieved.

"It is a game; you are playing back and forth," Jacobson said. "And some of these detainees are very tough."

Back in the United States, the value of the intelligence has been met with mixed reviews. While administration officials said it has been significant, some intelligence officers and others familiar with the interrogation sessions said they are not impressed.

One former CIA officer, Peter Probst, said he believes the Tiger Teams at Guantanamo have wrung the detainees dry. Probst said the captives might be of more use after they are released because intelligence agencies could monitor them.

"Even if they were marginal, they would be of interest when released," Probst said. Some released detainees might actually have been enticed into becoming double agents, he said, while others could carry misleading intelligence back to al Qaeda leaders. That could create paranoia and disrupt terrorist operations.

Another U.S. source familiar with Guantanamo said Pentagon officials are in a lose-lose situation with the less-valuable detainees. "After a while, intelligence gets stale and you begin to get the sense that we're just holding these people forever," the source said. "They weren't building cases against them. They were just holding them and keeping them off the street because they were afraid that one or more would do something bad."

The secrecy surrounding the operation has also provided ammunition to critics of the administration. The military has permitted hundreds of journalists to visit the base, but they must adhere to strict rules and be accompanied by handlers at all times. Journalists are required to sign contracts not to speak to detainees. Last year, a detainee shouted to a group of visitors, asking if they were journalists. When the visitors replied that they were from the British Broadcasting Corp., military escorts quickly ended the tour.

Even members of the Senate have had trouble getting responses from the Pentagon. Last December, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) visited the base and asked Rumsfeld when the detainees' status would be resolved.

"We firmly believe it is now time to make a decision on how the United States will move forward regarding the detainees," the senators wrote to Rumsfeld on Dec. 12.

Two months later, Rumsfeld replied that a determination on the status of the detainees was up in the air because "our nation continues to be in an armed conflict. As with any armed conflict, no one can predict when its end will occur."

Butler, the Pentagon official who oversaw Guantanamo, said the administration is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances. He said that nearly a third of the captives are "hard-core" terrorists and Taliban fighters, and that interrogators have collected valuable information from them, enabling intelligence officers to disrupt terrorist cells and figure out how al Qaeda is organized and financed.

"You are balancing two very important concepts: The notion of wanting to provide security and not allowing people to go back to terrorism and do harmful things, against recognizing the fact that we have people in custody . . . and we've got to do something with them," Butler said.

Though the Pentagon remains reluctant to disclose much information about the captives and the intelligence they have provided, Butler released limited descriptions of 10 suspected terrorists without identifying them by name.

One is believed to have links to a financier of the Sept. 11 hijackings. Another is a suspected al Qaeda member who was allegedly planning attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. A suspected member of an al Qaeda-supported terrorist cell in Afghanistan allegedly took part in a grenade attack on a foreign journalist's car. A fourth is suspected of serving as an explosives expert for al Qaeda and allegedly designed the prototype of a shoe bomb that could bring down an airliner.

Butler called the group "merely illustrative" and "not comprehensive."

The captive with the Sept. 11 link appears to be Mohamed al Qahtani, who investigators suspect was planning to meet lead hijacker Mohamed Atta in Orlando a month before the attacks. Qahtani was prevented from entering the country by an alert U.S. Customs agent and later captured in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have never disclosed where they are holding their most-valued detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, both suspected of masterminding the 2001 terrorist attacks. In addition to Guantanamo, captives are being held at Bagram air base and Kandahar in Afghanistan, and the government has placed others in undisclosed locations.

The Pentagon, in an attempt to relieve political pressure, is releasing some suspects who should still be behind bars, Jacobson contended. He said that may be the unavoidable result of not granting the detainees prisoner-of-war status from the beginning. If the Pentagon had followed that route, it could have used a formal legal process to deny rights to those who are truly enemy combatants.

"We were too clever by half on this one," Jacobson said, referring to himself and his colleagues at the Pentagon. "We put ourselves in a more difficult position."

Some of those released became local celebrities. Most denied working for al Qaeda or the Taliban, saying instead that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some said they were forced to fight for the Taliban. Most recounted being taken to U.S. military installations at the Bagram air base or in Kandahar, where they said they were abused during interrogations.

Once in Cuba, most said they were treated well but traumatized by their uncertain fate.

"I was in such a small cell and couldn't go outside for many days," recalled one man from Afghanistan, Sulaiman Shah, who said he was picked up for no reason by U.S. troops. "My toilet was next to my bed, and it was a very bad way to live."

This January, the Pentagon released three juveniles who had been held in a special camp called Iguana, named after the three-foot lizards that roam the base. One of the boys, Ismail Agha, told The Post in Afghanistan that he was treated well and learned to read and write English during his stay. He said he played soccer, slept in an air-conditioned room and showered twice a day. "Me go to Cuba, speak English now," the 15-year-old said proudly.

But others released recently have told more troubling tales. On March 9, the Pentagon returned five British captives to Britain, where authorities immediately set them free. Three of them said in newspaper interviews that they were roughed up and forced to falsely confess to terrorist activities.

Pentagon officials dismissed the stories as lies. Human rights groups monitoring Guantanamo have found little evidence of mistreatment or the use of "stress and duress techniques," such as depriving detainees of sleep or forcing them to stand for extended periods of time. "We are not getting any information that severe types of stress are being applied at Guantanamo," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, an international group based in New York. "We have some indication that at Guantanamo, over time, they have become more convinced a 'good cop' approach is more effective."

Still, the stories of mistreatment fueled anger overseas.

In recent months, relatives of detainees have traveled to the United States to tell their stories. Azmat Begg's son, Moazzam, has been in U.S. custody for two years, first at Bagram, now at Guantanamo. U.S. officials contend that Begg learned to make chemical bombs at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and translated motivational speeches for al Qaeda fighters. He is one of the six men designated to stand trial before a military tribunal, but formal charges have not been filed.

His father said that if his son committed a crime, he should be prosecuted.

"I would like to see the charges published against him," Azmat Begg said. "The mother cries. The whole family cries."

Butler, the senior Pentagon official, said a review system is now in place to determine who can go home. Many could join the 134 who have already been released and the 13 transferred. Butler said "at least half" of the 600 who remain could be returned to their home countries immediately for further detention or prosecution. That has not happened, he said, because the United States has been unable to secure guarantees from foreign governments.

"There is a large group of that remaining population that we would love to be able to transfer back to their countries," Butler said. "We're really not interested in being the world's jailer."

The Supreme Court may be the deciding factor. By early summer, the justices are expected to rule on whether the U.S. Constitution extends to Guantanamo and if the detainees can be held indefinitely without being charged or provided with lawyers.

VanNatta ended his tour as superintendent of Camp Delta in September. Today, he says he is proud of what he and his troops accomplished.

"That was the most important year I ever spent, because I think we saved lives," said VanNatta, now back running the maximum-security prison north of Indianapolis.

"If it comes out the way I think it will, it will be viewed as the most unique prison environment ever created. If it comes out that the information we collected did save lives, it will be viewed as one of the smartest moves ever made. If it's proven that there was no intelligence, then it's going to be viewed as a superpower using its power unchecked."

Staff writers John Mintz, R. Jeffrey Smith and Dana Priest in Washington and David B. Ottaway in Saudi Arabia contributed to this report.

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