Special Report

Trusting Terrorists, Abandoning Troops

Michelle Obama, take note: detainees at Guantanamo are being fed 6,000 calories a day.

By 3.12.10

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I recently returned from a week-long media tour in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some of our finest soldiers and sailors are tasked with a difficult and thankless job: guarding dangerous detainee enemy combatants captured in the course of the Global War on Terror. In the same week, Reps. Burton (R-Ind.) Rohrabacher (R-Cal.) and Gohmert (R-Tex.) presented Pentagon officials with 170,000 signatures from Americans asking that courts-martial proceedings against three Navy SEALs be dropped. The charges: after the SEALs apprehended Ahmed Hashim Abed, the al Qaeda terrorist wanted for the torture and murder of four American contractors in Fallujah in 2004, one of them allegedly punched him, while the other two allegedly made false statements about the incident.

Although the personnel at Gitmo and these Navy SEALs are serving their nation at opposite ends of the globe, an unfortunate and troubling thread connects them. In both settings, our government has deliberately decided to overlook the exemplary job that these military professionals have done in service to the United States, under extremely difficult circumstances. Instead, our government has chosen to give the benefit of the doubt to the enemies of our nation and the critics of its self-defense, by prosecuting the SEALs who risk their own lives to apprehend jihadists, and pushing the false narrative that has come to define detention operations at Gitmo.

While the three Navy SEALs await the opportunity to answer the charges against them, the Obama administration and its supporters have already passed judgment on those handling detention operations at Guantanamo Bay for the past eight years. The president himself has referred to Guantanamo as a "sad chapter in American history," and has lamented that Guantanamo has "set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world."

After one sees firsthand how the detainees are really treated at Gitmo, it becomes evident that these characterizations are entirely unfounded.

Every detainee held at Gitmo has 24/7 access to the hospital specifically set up for them, complete with an X-Ray machine (to accommodate the high number of sports injuries, including those from the popular intramural soccer games) and Intensive Care Unit. Detainees are offered annual physicals, in-patient and out-patient treatment, and interpreter services. At the hospital pharmacy, detainees have over 500 different brand-name medications available to them -- anything that is unavailable at the pharmacy can be obtained from off the base. The hospital's mental health unit has a psychologist and psychiatrist on staff for the detainees.

The detainees are provided 6,000 calories a day (assuming they eat all they are given). They have their choice of six meal options for each of their three daily, hand-delivered meals (regular, vegetarian w/ fish, veggie no fish, high fiber, soft diet, bland diet), along with their choice of salad and dessert. All of the meat is certified "halal" per the requirements of Islam, making it expensive for the kitchen to purchase.

The Gitmo library contains more than 13,000 books, almost a thousand magazines, and hundreds of DVDs -- for whatever reason, the most popular books amongst the detainees is the Harry Potter series. Books are available in English, Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, Russian, and French. Additionally, every detainee receives USA Today, plus one Saudi newspaper and one Egyptian newspaper, along with two Korans. Gitmo offers several classes for detainees -- literacy (Arabic and Pashto), English-as-a-second-language, and art -- and also allows for at least four hours of recreation a day, sometimes in groups. Three of the camps I saw had outdoor soccer fields, and various camps also had foosball, table-tennis, and aerobic exercise equipment.

The religious preferences of the detainees are taken very seriously. In addition to the two Korans, detainees also receive prayer rugs, prayer caps, and prayer beads. They pray five times a day, and are allowed to observe Muslim holidays such as Ramadan, for which the kitchen adjusts its own cooking schedule. In the recreation yards of Camp 5, the maximum security camp, there are black arrows painted on the cement, pointing towards Mecca so the detainee will know which way to face for prayer. The same camp has several clocks in the recreation area, in case one stops working, so that detainees will know exactly when to start praying.

The Guantanamo Joint Task Force employs a 52-year-old of Middle Eastern descent named "Zak" as a "cultural advisor," to serve as a conduit between the detainees and Gitmo personnel. He conveys that his job is to help guards and detainees understand each other, and to educate those who have to interact with the detainees. Gitmo personnel have 24/7 access to Zak, who has taught the guards that detainees will not answer their cell door while praying, and also says that the guards themselves are completely silent during prayer time, just so they will not be accused of interfering with detainee religious practices.

This barely scratches the surface of the extent to which the personnel at Gitmo are not only ensuring the health and welfare of the detainees -- which the Deputy Commander of the Joint Task Force identifies as the mission -- but also going out of their way to avoid even offending them. Yet the President and his supporters in Congress continue to press for the closure of this facility, perpetuating the mythology that has come to surround it.

Members of Congress are giving voice to 170,000 individuals who have shown their support for the Navy SEALs facing courts-martial. If more people were given the opportunity to visit Guantanamo Bay, they would be signing petitions by the tens of thousands on behalf of those serving there as well.

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About the Author

Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.