Despite the lovely, celadon water lapping along the shore, Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay is no paradise. Rain doesn’t fall there often, so the vegetation, mostly mere scrub-brush, is almost as much brown as green. The heat makes a visitor feel like an enervated sloth who can’t find his favorite shade tree. What’s worse for the inmates at Camp Delta is that while they can see and smell the Caribbean oh-so-close to their quarters, they will never dip a toe in its waters. Clearly their tropical sojourn is no day at the beach.
Nor should it be.
On Tuesday I joined a small group of visitors — lawyers, scholars, journalists, and military personnel — to tour the controversial facility where the United States imprisons several hundred “enemy combatants” in the “Global War on Terrorism.” I wouldn’t long endure the inmates’ living conditions even for a subsequent life of untold riches. But I left there incredibly proud of the American military personnel who operate Guantanamo’s facilities. They do so in a transparent and humane manner while working overtime at their dual mission: protecting their country from terrorists and ensuring that the detainees are treated with appropriate consideration.
Ground rules governing our trip were that we can describe anything we saw or were told, but not with direct attribution to specific military personnel. Of the six prison areas (cellblocks?) at Camp Delta, two are entirely empty. About 380 detainees populate the other four areas — the most cooperative and/or least dangerous of which are in slightly nicer quarters, with slightly greater privileges (joint recreation areas rather than single-person rec areas, for instance). They are afforded high-quality medical care from seven physicians, 12 nurses, and 83 Corpsmen: In the five years or so the facility has been operating, it has provided 6,478 dental procedures, about 5,000 vaccinations, and 20 colonoscopies (statistics provided by U.S. armed services). Four distinct menus are offered for all detainees (some heavier in fiber than others, some vegetarian, etc.), and all are offered (but certainly not required to consume) 4,500-5,000 calories of food per day.
All have access to recreation of at least two hours (and as much as 12) per day; some have access to board games such as Checkers and chess, and to a 5,000-piece library, and to two Korans each (one in Arabic and another in their native tongue). In each cell, and throughout the complex, arrows point the way (and sometimes the distance) to Mecca, and they are afforded prayer time on five occasions each day — during which, signs remind the guards to keep quiet.
Some 1,000 American military personnel serve as guards for these detainees. For their efforts, from July 2005 to August of 2006 they were subjected to at least 432 “bodily fluid assaults” (more than one per day), 227 physical assaults, and all sorts of other indignities from detainees who often loudly boast of their own status as jihadists and sometimes openly revel in the mayhem at the Twin Towers.
Yet, according to top brass, “Not a single instance of torture or inhumane treatment here has ever been substantiated.” International observers on record in various forums have been impressed. Said Alain Grignard, Deputy Head of Brussels Federal Police Anti-Terrorism Unit: “At the level of the detention facilities, it is a model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons.” Said Arlene McCarthy, Member of European Parliament (UK Socialist): “We were able to confirm that conditions for prisoners were better than reported.” And Anne-Marie Lizin, President of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (and chair of the Belgian Senate), said the medical facilities were “entirely comparable, in stocks and in products alike, to that of a normal, small-scale hospital,” and indicated that she could not “dream of something better for the POWs.”
Not that the facilities are a picnic, by any means. Security is extremely tight and fencing and other barriers are extensive. Some individual cells, basically steel mesh cages, are as little as 58 square feet, with toilets at one end and built-in bed-shelves atop which sit foam mattresses. Other cells range up to 96 square feet. The recreational areas are either hard-packed dirt or concrete, and they are covered to protect detainees from the broiling sun. Some, but not all, of the cellblocks are more modern, with well-working air conditioning and more privacy. One of them includes an incipient herb garden for more cooperative inmates, with three planters now and seven more to come. Regardless of the specific arrangements, every cellblock is scrupulously kept clean, in proper military fashion. Every single American in uniform seemed impressively dedicated to the twin mottoes “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and “Safe and Humane Care and Custody.” Their work must not be at all pleasant, but they seem to take pride in doing it well.
Despite all the crazy reporting to the contrary, interrogations at Guantanamo Bay never have included particularly extreme techniques, and now all are done according to the updated U.S. Army Field Manual. The actual interrogation room in Camp Five, for detainees of particularly significant intelligence value, has the feel of a small therapist’s office. Two plush and comfortable armchairs (one, a recliner, with a place on the floor nearby to attach an ankle-iron) face each other across a dark-wooded desk, while the surrounding walls are painted in a warm and cozy hue. Fresh food and drink are available during the interviews. Explained one of the military personnel involved: “The only torture done here is when the Starbucks is cold.”
ASIDE FROM THE ABSURD ALLEGATIONS of torture, the biggest controversy surrounding Guantanamo involves the legal disputes about whether, how, and under what circumstances (if at all) the detainees should have access to American courts or other procedures to prove they are not dangerous, or that they have been held by mistake, and to secure their release. Our tour included extensive briefings on practices and procedures involved in the administrative reviews, and a visit both to the review room and to the thoroughly modernized courtroom where more formal trials are held.
This is not the forum for legal analysis, but from a practical standpoint, certain points beg for attention.
First, none of these detainees in the “war on terror” have been brought to the Guantanamo facility without being carefully adjudged to be among the worst of the worst. (None, by the way, are from Iraq; these are all from the fighting in Afghanistan or other worldwide terror fronts.) Only about 770 detainees have ever been brought to Guantanamo, whereas far more than that number have been captured overall, quite obviously, during American and allied efforts in Afghanistan.
Second, more have been sent away from the facility than those that remain there. Some have been sent to captivity in their home countries — but only after extensive review to make sure they will not be subject to torture once there — while several dozen others have been released entirely. (Of those released, about 20 are now known to have rejoined the fight against the free world, which means that if anything the reviews have been too lenient.) Every single detainee has his case reviewed in administrative proceedings at least once a year. Such reviews are not required under the Geneva Conventions and are not obligated under any other national or international law, but they are American policy so as to do everything humanly possible to ensure that the detainees not only were indeed terrorist threats but that they would remain so if let go.
Third, the 37,000 interrogations so far at Guantanamo, including those of about 20 detainees with direct personal knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and another 15 with special training in using Improvised Explosive Devices, have reportedly provided a huge volume of information that has been useful in warding off new terrorist attacks.
Fourth, and most importantly… The ordinary American is almost sure, at some point, to ask this simple question: Why should these detainees have generalized access to specific, formal legal proceedings at all, much less to American courts? Aren’t these detainees, in effect, Prisoners of War? In World War II, did the POWs we captured from Germany and Japan have access to administrative trials or to American courts?
Of course not. In effect, those POWs, often conscripts doing their nation’s bidding in formal warfare, were afforded fewer “rights” than are these terrorist detainees who fight of their own volition, under no nation’s flag, and recognize no Geneva Conventions or any other of the ordinary “rules” of war. It is bizarre, from this vantage point, to treat these terrorist versions of POWs as if they merit the same protections provided to ordinary soldiers, much less any of the privileges given to American citizens charged with criminal activity.
AMERICANS GENERALLY BELIEVE in an ethic that requires all human beings to be treated, yes, humanely. What I saw at Guantanamo Bay convinced me that we do so with these terrorists. That is more, of course, than they would do for us. What they would do to us, of course, is to kill us all, adults and innocent children alike, as infidels. In this light, Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay is not a mark of dishonor on the American nation, but a badge of great honor. Under difficult circumstances, our men and women in uniform there protect our nation and serve the cause of humanity as well.
I close with a public quote from another member of the European Parliament, one James Elles: “My impression is that the camp is run with the utmost professionalism and the conditions under which detainees are being held are clean and humane, and follow the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see for myself that the reality of Guantanamo is very different from the largely negative portrait given by the press on our side of the Atlantic. Until the issue of what happens to detainees is resolved, the closing of Guantanamo could make the war on terrorism more difficult and ultimately more dangerous for our citizens.”