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Guantanamo chief blasts critics in comments to Savannah audience

Savannah Morning News
by Pamela Walck
January 23, 2008

Few people can say they've caught a glimpse of life behind the wires of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But some 100 members and friends of the Savannah Council, Navy League of the United States can brag they have seen and heard more than most.

Tuesday night, the league's guest was Rear Admiral Mark H. Buzby, commander of the Joint Task Force based at Guantanamo. He spoke at the Hunter Club for the council's monthly meeting.

James Keller, president of the local league chapter, said it was a chance meeting during a commissioning ceremony that brought the admiral to Savannah - the fact that Guantanamo has been in the news a lot lately was merely a plus.

During his remarks, Buzby shared personal insights and photos of America's oldest naval base - including images of the holding blocks and living conditions for 275 current detainees, all with suspected links to al-Qaida and other terrorist cell groups who have been housed there since 2002.

"I leaped at the opportunity to speak to people who like the Navy," Buzby said, "and because of the opportunity to speak about the most misunderstood command in the Navy."

Offering his version of the "truth," Buzby said he and his officers have a "very cordial" relationship with their Cuban counterparts on the other side of the base's wires.

And since Guantanamo first started taking detainees in America's global war against terrorism, Buzby said some of the base's detainees have been linked to the 9/11 bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the Taliban aggression in Afghanistan and Northern Africa.

"We have everyone from the higher-ups to the trigger-pullers, and everybody in between," Buzby said. "Basically, I have a rebuilt al-Qaida cell inside my camp."

And while some of that leadership has been holed up for the last six years, Buzby said many have a keen working knowledge of al-Qaida and the Taliban's current leadership because they once were underlings for many of those captured in 2002.

Buzby and others contend that since the detainees were captured during warfare, under the laws of conflict, those detained can be held without charges until the war ends.

But with America's War on Terror entering another year, and with no end in sight, Buzby doesn't see Guantanamo's purpose changing much in the future.

In fact, the base is about to enter a new era later this spring when military commissions - similar to civilian court proceedings - will begin for as many as 100 detainees with ties to terroristic acts across the globe.

Six years later, these detainees are still providing valuable information.

Buzby said that recently, some detainees re-created detailed maps of the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan, using poster board paper and a crayon. It was information passed along to coalition forces in the area that enabled those forces to wipe out safe houses, trench lines and enemy supplies.

"For a Subway BMT, they will talk a whole lot," Buzby said.

Buzby acknowledged that many question the care and conditions at the base, but he insists it's nonsense.

He said there is one doctor for every three detainees - and many of the physicians also see the top members of Congress as patients.

"People who question the level of care don't know what the hell they are talking about," Buzby said to loud applause at one point.

Commander describes life at Gitmo

Prior to his address, Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby - commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - sat down for a question and answer session with the Savannah Morning News:

SMN: What is a "typical" day for a detainee at Guantanamo?

Buzby: "Detainees are housed for the most part in individual cells that are about 8 feet by 10 feet roughly in size, all next to each other. They wake up around 5 or 6 in the morning, and they are given their breakfast. They are given three meals a day, roughly about 4,500 to 5,000 calorie a day diet total. Morning prayer is called. They pray five times a day. Then after breakfast, it's varied.

"Everyone will get at least two hours of recreation, we stagger that. ... After recreation, they will shower and go back to their cells. Some may go to a medical appointment if they have some sort of ailment that requires them to be seen by a physician.

"Some, if willing, will go to an interview or interrogation that can last two to four or five hours.

"Lunch gets served around 11:30 ... there's more prayer times. ... Dinner is served usually around 6, and we turn the lights- they never go off, but they go down at 10 p.m., and that's kind of their day."

SMN: Since you've been assigned to Guantanamo, the number of detainees has been reduced dramatically. Is there a goal for when the base will be free of suspected terrorists, or do you think it will always function in that capacity?

Buzby: "The process is really controlled by the deputy secretary of the Department of Defense, Secretary (Gordon) England. He is what's known as the designated civilian official for detainee affairs, and he reviews the stats of all the detainees on a constant basis and makes a determination every year ... after reviewing the records as to whether they should be retained under U.S. government control, transferred to the control of another government - typically the country where they were born - or outright released.

"If they fall into that transfer category, the State Department works with host countries to arrange a transfer. Saudi Arabia, for example, has taken back almost all their detainees because they have a very well established rehabilitation program, which has been very, very successful. We feel very comfortable releasing those detained back to their countries.

"(Others) such as Yemen don't have a good track record. A lot of the people they have captured have escaped. Afghanistan is somewhere in the middle there.

"And many will go before a military commission, which is a trial. They will be brought up on charges and tried before a military commission. (We have) about 100 or so that will go through that process.

"Depending on the outcome, they will then be prisoners and go into detention facilities someplace. But no decision has been made whether that will remain Guantanamo or in the U.S. prison system. That process begins this spring."

SMN: There have been reports that many detainees are fearful of returning to their home land for fear of being tortured or killed. Was that something the U.S. government ever expected? Is it a valid fear?

Buzby: "In some cases, we did. In some, cases we didn't. We did not with the Algerians. We sent a lot of Moroccans back - when I say we, I mean the U.S. government. We try very hard to ensure we are not going to put detainees back into dangerous circumstances."

SMN: What is your opinion of waterboarding as a form of information gathering? Do you regard it as torture?

Buzby: "Waterboarding, to the best of my knowledge, is not in accordance with the guidance of the Army field manual concerning interrogation - which is what I have to go by. So it would never be allowed and has never been allowed at Guantanamo and has never been done at Guantanamo. I have never had it done to me personally. The description of it sounds pretty gruesome, and it would not be something I would want to endure.

SMN: How many of the 275 detainees at Guantanamo will face charges?

Buzby: "About 100 are scheduled for trials. Others we're still developing cases.

"Many are enemy combatants that were removed from the battlefield - that was their major sin in this world: They were fighting against coalition forces.

"The law of war and conflict, which is the governing doctrine in this case, states two warring states have the right to remove combatants from the battlefield. You don't have to charge them with anything, and they don't have to be guilty of anything. They just have to be caught in the process of fighting the other guy.

"At the end of the conflict, you turn them lose. So some of them may fall into that category - so when the fighting is over, the door is open and they go home.

"The problem is: When does the global war on terror end? Who knows? But until I get told otherwise, I keep them behind the wire."

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