As he made his rounds inside the razor wire of Camp 4 last May 18, the young National Guardsman was startled to see a prisoner fitting a noose of bedsheets around his neck.
Tensions already ran high that day between the guards and the prisoners. Hours earlier, two other prisoners -- officially called detainees -- had also tried suicide by overdosing on drugs they'd collected from others.
The young guardsman called for help and rushed toward the prisoner. But the cement floor had been deliberately slickened with a foul coat of soapy water and excrement -- urine and feces. He slipped and fell, becoming easy prey for other prisoners who, shrieking threats, fell on him. Some carried contraband weapons they'd made from fan blades, broken fluorescent bulbs, sharpened bits of metal.
The shouts triggered an immediate outburst in four of the camp's other five cellblocks as detainees hurled bedding, shoes, sand -- everything they could reach -- at their captors. Only an equally forceful response by other guards armed only with nonlethal weapons quelled the disturbance.
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There's a moral to this story, according to the teller.
"These aren't poor sheepherders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, " said Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., who delivered the account of that uprising and who oversees the seaside complex of prison camps on the eastern tip of Cuba. "These are terrorists. Many of them tell us every day that they have one goal -- to kill Americans."
This was, ironically, the heart of a welcoming message delivered by Harris to a group of civilians, including me, invited to see for ourselves last month what goes on inside the fences and impenetrable walls of what the military calls Joint Task Force-Guantánamo or, simply, the Guantánamo detention facility .
Our group -- a lawyer, a broadcast executive, an entrepreneur, a college administrator, a social-services program director, a television producer and me -- was something of an experiment, an ad hoc focus group, concocted by the admiral and superiors at U.S. Southern Command to spread greater understanding of what goes on in this mystique-shrouded facility.
From the day it was hastily opened in 2002, the Guantánamo detention facility became a lightning rod of controversy for the United States. It sits at the center in the struggle between dealing with the threat of anti-American terrorism and the American ideal of providing constitutional protections to the accused.
In building a prison camp on a remote part of the U.S. Navy Base on Cuba's southeastern tip, the Bush administration sought to create a legal limbo where detainees -- prisoners captured in the "war on terror" -- could be held indefinitely, even without charges.
The constitutionality and wisdom of that decision continues to be debated in federal courts and in world public opinion. Nobody disputes that terrorists, real or potential, should be locked securely away and, if possible, interrogated for the intelligence they can provide.
But without a trial, how are we sure who the terrorists are? And if we lock them up for the duration of the "war on terror, " how do we know when it's over?
These are important, albeit thorny and complex questions. But here at Guantánamo, inside the razor wire, they're also irrelevant.
What is relevant is that it falls to Harris and the men and women under his command to carry out a mission that is almost inherently contradictory: to treat suspected and accomplished combatants captured in the war on terrorism "fairly and humanely" -- knowing well that, given the slightest opportunity, those combatants, unlike ordinary prisoners, wait for the moment when they can kill their captors.
And one more thing: That mission must be carried out in the spotlight of world opinion, much of it already shaped by -- those here would say distorted by -- memories of Abu Ghraib.
Six camps house frontline fighters, alleged terrorists
The Guantánamo detention facility sprawls across a rocky bluff overlooking the Caribbean, a picturesque setting that belies its mission. The detainees are imprisoned in six camps; four consist of cellblocks largely open to the trade winds. Two others a short distance away have been built to maximum security standards designed not only to hold prisoners but to thwart suicides, which many detainees see as a tactic to be used against their captors.
Not all detainees have found Guantánamo to be a dead end. After extensive interrogations, more than 350 have been released or transferred to their home countries. Another 85 are awaiting release. Still, during our visit, 430 remained ranging in age from late teens to over 70; of that number, Harris told us, "300 are so hard-core [anti-American], it does no good to interrogate them."
The alleged mastermind of 9/11 is now here, along with frontline fighters from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the alleged plotters of the attacks on the USS Cole. There are loyalists to Osama bin Laden; terrorist trainers; 15 bomb makers; would-be suicide bombers, plus the forgers, fraud artists and financiers who enable the terrorists to move across borders and to obtain the resources needed to threaten their enemies.
More than 60 detainees have ties to the United States, including three who attended (one graduated) Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the prestigious aviation-training school. A majority speak at least some English, and many are fluent. One was a translator for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War and a former resident of Gaithersburg, Md. Most of the prisoners are held in individual, cage-like cells, open to the air and containing a bunk and toilet. Each is issued a jumpsuit, shower shoes and a Koran; each also is allowed 30 minutes to exercise in an outside pen twice a week and then shower.
Those regarded as most compliant -- meaning only that they follow the rules, not that they are cooperating with their captors -- can live in Camp 4, which is reminiscent of a POW camp with barracks-style living. On the day we entered Camp 4, detainees lingered casually in the shade of a building, some reading, others mingling and eyeing us. A small soccer field and a basketball court occupied the center space. One prisoner achieved star status with guards for his ability to sink shots from beyond three-point distance.
The relaxed setting, however, could be dangerously deceptive, said our escort, a female Navy commander who, like other guards, asked not to be identified by name as a security measure.
It was in Camp 4 where the May riot occurred, a direct result of the detainees' ability to mingle and plan.
"Al Qaeda has fully functioning cells within the facility, " Harris told us. Because many detainees have been there for four years, "they have the equivalent of a college degree in how Americans operate."
In late 2004, a snitch tipped guards to a detailed plot by several detainees that entailed breaking out of the interior compound and seizing a delivery truck that would be used to run down -- and kill -- as many American guards as possible.
Harris said that in the past year, guards in the other camps have endured 432 assaults, mostly by prisoners hurling cups of bodily fluids -- vomit, spit, semen, urine, feces, sometimes all together -- at them. Female guards are particularly vulnerable to verbal threats and to being "flashed."
Yet the guards, both soldiers and sailors, are trained to absorb these assaults without response, to seek treatment if necessary, and to go back to work, Harris said.
Those detainees who are regarded as being the most dangerous or as having the highest intelligence value are held in a pair of imposing buildings -- Camp 5 and Camp 6 -- modeled after a prison in Michigan and hardened to maximum-security standards. There, guards walk the corridor in pairs and inmates can neither see or converse with one another unless they are outside in the exercise pens during scheduled periods.
Harris insisted, and other guards verified independently, that every detainee, regardless of camp, is assured of what Harris said was the same level of healthcare that he receives. Inside the compound, we toured a fully equipped clinic capable of treating most medical, dental and mental-health matters.
Detainees routinely receive glasses, dental work, prosthetics, immunizations, even surgery and psychiatric care. One prisoner was recently evacuated to the main base hospital for cardiac surgery, which was successful; another had a cancerous tumor removed.
The clinic also is equipped with special stations where three detainees on hunger strikes (down from 89 the year before) come daily to be fed through a nasal tube. "They're compliant to the point where they get into the chair and help the guard put on the restraints, then wait for the feeding, " the clinic director told us. None has lost any weight.
A detainee recently called a guard at 3 a.m. on a Sunday complaining of jaw pain. By 8 a.m., a dentist had responded to the call, opened the clinic and treated the detainee's abscessed tooth.
"I challenge you to try to get your dentist to treat you at dawn on a Sunday morning, " the medical officer said.
Prisoners are offered a daily diet of 4,200 calories prepared in four menus depending on their native cultures -- enough so that the average detainee gains 18 pounds. "Most are in the moderately overweight or obese category, " Navy Capt. Ron Sollock, who heads the facility's medical operation, told us.
Prisoners send and receive letters channeled through the International Red Cross. They can borrow from the multilingual collection of 5,000 books. Agatha Christie novels and Harry Potter are current favorites. Religious traditions are rigorously respected, including Muslim prayers five times daily. As we walked through one cellblock at 2 p.m., we came upon plastic cones, placed by guards, calling for silence while some prisoners prayed.
In every way, Harris told us, policies are geared to not only meet the most liberal standard of the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war, but to also exceed the standards set by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for its own facilities.
NO 'GOOD-COP, BAD-COP'
Casual meetings have yielded valuable information
There is a motive for such treatment: extracting useful information in the fight against terrorism. Coercion, Harris said, is forbidden; punishment comes only by withholding privileges. A detainee who agrees to meet with an interrogator can spend hours sitting in a casually furnished room complete with a recliner, a wide-screen television, a selection of movies and a supply of snacks. Sometimes the detainee will chat with the interrogator; at other times, they sit in silence.
"But never, " insisted one interrogator, "do we use a 'good cop-bad cop' approach" to try to elicit information. Paul Rester, a Defense Intelligence Agency officer who runs the intelligence-gathering operation, said that, over time, these seemingly casual meetings have yielded a trove of valuable intelligence.
Prisoners have described how terror operations are planned and financed; they've identified members of Osama bin Laden's inner circle; they've explained how homemade explosives are constructed, and they've tipped authorities to the locations of terror networks operating in the Middle East, Europe and in the United States.
Most of this information came out in painstakingly small doses over months and years of chats.
Yet, according to Rester, "even after three, four, five years, we're still getting fresh intelligence. And time is on our side."
But therein lies the conundrum that surrounds and pervades Guantánamo.
In past wars, prisoner-of-war camps existed only until the end of hostilities, when the former combatants would be granted an amnesty and sent home under the terms of a peace treaty.
In what the Bush administration calls the Global War on Terror, there may be no end to hostilities. There is no army with which to make peace, no amnesty for former combatants.
And so Guantánamo goes on, its future tied to forces beyond the razor-wire fences. Caught on this treadmill along with the detainees are the military men and women sworn to hold them securely while treating them -- despite the provocations -- humanely.
Abu Ghraib, Harris told me as we left the camp, was "a failure of training and a failure of leadership." He's confident that when the history of Guantánamo is written, the outcome will be far different.
"We've conducted over 35,000 interviews here and there has not been one case of proven torture, " he said. "We are the most transparent detention facility in the world. Bar none."