GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The cream of al Qaeda and the Taliban's imprisoned crop is being interrogated in three windowless plywood huts in Camp X-Ray, each bare-walled room furnished with two chairs and a table and guards under order to block the interrogators from so much as touching the prisoners.
"No NYPD Blue stuff going on there," said Jason Ortiz, 23, an Army private from the Bronx who escorts the prisoners from their chain-link cells in the Camp X-Ray prison and into the interrogation huts 100 yards away.
A tip from a camp inmate helped prompt the strong FBI alert Monday for a possible terrorist attack against targets in the United States or U.S. installations in Yemen, FBI officials were quoted as saying.
Camp X-Ray officials declined comment Tuesday on the FBI claim, and the interrogators from the FBI, CIA and several military intelligence branches have refused to talk to the media since the camp opened Jan. 11.
U.S. intelligence officials in Washington stressed that their side of the war on terror is being waged not just in Camp X-Ray but all around the world, wherever the trail of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network leads.
But prison camp officials and guards interviewed recently indicated that a significant number of prisoners are cooperating with interrogators - though they stressed that it's not known if they are telling the truth.
"Not one prisoner clammed up, and some went on and on," said Sgt. Woody Malone, 38, an Army reservist from Sanford, N.C., who commands Ortiz's unit. He has stood guard inside the huts at dozens of interrogations, he said.
The prisoners at Camp X-Ray are certainly the cream of the crop, at least in the view of the U.S. intelligence agents who interviewed them in prisons in Afghanistan and selected them to be the first sent here.
Of the eight shipments of prisoners that arrived in this U.S. military base on Cuba's eastern tip since Jan. 11, "the first groups had the highest degree of intelligence value," said prison spokesman Marine Maj. Steve Cox.
Among the first prisoners to be transferred here was the former Taliban army chief of staff Mullah Fazel Mazloom, according to media reports from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
The second groups to arrive were made up of inmates who needed immediate medical attention, and the last two shipments on Saturday and Monday were "next in relative order of intelligence value," Cox added.
But just how truthful the prisoners have been with the interrogators remains unclear.
Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, overall commander of the prison operation, said interrogators are not even certain how many of the 288 prisoners now here are members of Afghanistan's former Taliban government and army, and how many belong to the far more dangerous al Qaeda network accused in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
"There's a group that claims to be Taliban. There's a smaller group that claims to be al Qaeda," Lehnert said, adding that the largest group is made up of prisoners who refused to identify themselves.
Some inmates have given many different names, so guards here refer to them by the last three figures of the 12-digit-and-letter code numbers assigned to them by U.S. intelligence screeners in Afghanistan, said Camp X-Ray's commander, Army Col. Terry Carrico.
Malone and Ruiz both described the interrogation sessions with virtually the same words - "smooth," "professional" and "quiet," not counting the hum of the wall-mounted air conditioning unit.
The huts have no windows, the walls are unpainted wood and lack any decoration, and the only furniture is a chair for the prisoner and a desk and a chair for the interrogator to avoid distractions, they said.
Manacled prisoners must remain seated throughout the interviews, which last from 30 minutes to four hours and go on from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but the interrogators can sit or walk about as they choose, they said.
No cameras are visible in the room and detainees can drink water but are not allowed to smoke, Ruiz said. Camp X-Ray rules forbid tobacco for the prisoners.
Malone said some of the prisoners were visibly nervous during their first interviews, afraid of what awaited them behind the interrogation huts' doors. In many of their homelands, that would be brutal torture and summary executions.
One prisoner sedated for surgery at the Navy's Fleet Hospital 20 later told his doctor that he "thought he would never wake up again," said hospital commander Capt. Pat Alford, 45, of Cheyenne, Wyo.
Another told guards in the C-141 cargo jets that fly the prisoners from Afghanistan to this isolated U.S. military base in eastern Cuba that he expected to be pushed to his death in mid-flight.
The prisoners then may be cooperating out of relief that they are safe, or perhaps contrition for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America that killed more than 3,000 people in the name of Islam.
Many have expressed remorse over the terror attacks and criticized the Taliban for sheltering bin Laden, said Navy Lt. Abuhena Saiful-Islam, a Navy Muslim chaplain who talks regularly with the prisoners. None admit to having met bin Laden, he added.
Malone said a surprisingly high number of prisoners speak some English - camp guards said some claimed to have studied in U.S. universities - but that not all the interrogators speak the inmates' various languages.
A mixed team of military and civilian translators is on call to help at the prison camp, the interrogation huts and the Navy hospital where eight of the prisoners are undergoing treatment, camp officials said.
"The interrogation is a real smooth process," said Malone. "We treat them [the prisoners] in a firm, fair and humane way and they don't give us any hassles at all."
Malone said interrogators and guards underwent briefings before the start of the interviews on procedures and ground rules - especially the one that bans interrogators from making physical contact with prisoners.
It has never happened, he said. But if it ever did, his unit is under orders to immediately take the prisoner back to his cell.
"Our job," he said, "is both to guard and protect the prisoner."