The Real Guantanamo

Sunday, June 1, 2008
Benjamin Wittes

The weirdness of the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, beggars easy description. Large iguanas roam the forty-five-square-mile tract of land as though they own the place. At roughly two-thirds the size of Washington, D.C., Guantanamo sits on either side of the bay that gave the base its name. Heavily armed Coast Guard speedboats zoom back and forth across the water, passing off-duty personnel lolling about on pontoon boats that motor pacifically in the lagoons off the main channel. Guantanamo is not far off America’s shores, barely past Miami—a quick three-hour hop by Gulfstream jet from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. And despite its being on the land mass of one of this country’s most implacable enemies, you don’t need a passport to get there. At the same time, it’s a world away. The detention facilities there constitute a kind of prison within a prison, a lockup located in an oasis of America wedged between a sea of Cuban communism and the sea itself. And while you may have little sense of leaving the United States when you travel to Guantanamo, in a strange recognition of the facility’s foreign status, you do need your passport to get back home.

The very oddities that make Guantanamo such a peculiar place to visit render it operationally—though not optically—ideal as a detention site. At once secure and nearby, Guantanamo operations are not subject to the discontent or objections of the host government. And at least until the outset of the war on terrorism, successive administrations had assumed as well that the area lay outside the purview of the American courts. At Guantanamo, they reasoned, the government can do as it likes—as long as it can take the political heat. And so, amid the lizards and the blazing heat, the military built a set of detention camps, which have indelibly etched into the public mind images of shackled, hooded prisoners in cages.

The images, however they might dominate public perceptions, bear little relation to Guantanamo’s contemporary reality, which is coolly professional. The detention facilities at the base vary a great deal. As of April 2007, when I visited Guantanamo, only Camp 1 still had cells with mesh walls—and the military was then phasing detainees out of there as it completed its new facilities. Camp 4, which houses relatively compliant detainees, looks a lot like a basic prisonerof- war camp. Dormitory-like barracks open onto a courtyard, of which detainees have the run. Detainees have access to English classes. It’s not a resort, by any means, but inmates in many prisons in the United States would surely see it as an improvement were they shipped there. Camps 5 and 6, by contrast, are pretty grim. Built for the less cooperative and more dangerous detainees, they are the equivalent of a modern “supermax” prison. The facilities are clean, and the detainees are fed well and have more exercise time than comparable high-security prisoners in the United States. Still, the military keeps them locked down most of the day in individual cells. It candidly admits that how much cooperation a detainee offers in interrogations helps determine in which camp he lives.

Running Guantanamo is a nightmare. Guards face intense stress. Between July 2005 and August 2006, detainees conducted 432 “bodily fluid attacks.” Detainees in Camp 4—the facility for the most compliant detainees—conducted a violent uprising. Suicide attempts and hunger strikes have occurred relatively frequently—often requiring involuntary feeding to keep detainees alive. Maintaining the fewer than 400 detainees present at the time required almost 1,100 guards. The tension at Guantanamo is so palpable that one has no trouble imagining how, but for the stringent military discipline, a site like this could degrade into anarchic brutality—as Abu Ghraib in Iraq degraded in the face of command failures.

Detention itself, even under worse conditions and many more people, does not normally spark the controversy that has attended Guantanamo. America keeps more than two million people under lock and key these days domestically, many of them in prisons that make Guantanamo seem tame. The detainee population in Iraq dwarfs that of Guantanamo by almost two orders of magnitude, and these detainees get less legal process—yet they prompt little outcry. Guantanamo differs because detentions there seem to reflect arbitrary government power so close to home yet self-consciously kept offshore in a fashion too clever by half. Detentions there seem somehow punitive, yet the Pentagon has never publicly justified them on an individual basis. Its evidence that the detainees are who it claims mostly remains secret. And many Americans—as part of a growing international consensus—have come to doubt the very premise that the laws of war permit indefinite detentions of such people without criminal charges supported by proof in court beyond a reasonable doubt using admissible evidence.

Tension is so palpable that one has no trouble imagining how, but for the stringent military discipline, this site could degrade into anarchic brututality.

United States or its coalition allies,’’ that only 8 percent of detainees “were characterized as Al-Qaeda fighters,” and that most detainees were not captured by American forces but by either the Northern Alliance or the Pakistani army. Around the same time, the National Journal published its own evaluation of the still-sketchy data released from the CSRT process.

Maintaining the fewer than four hundred detainees present at the time required almost 1,100 guards.

Far from the “worst of the worst,” the magazine concluded, “Many [detainees] are not accused of hostilities against the United States or its allies. Most, when captured, were innocent of any terrorist activity, were Taliban foot soldiers at worst, and often far less than that. And some, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time.” Within a few weeks of the publication of these reports, the New York Times, based on CSRT hearing transcripts, had editorialized that “far too many [detainees] seemed to be innocents or lowly foot soldiers simply caught up in the whirlwind after 9/11.” A few months later, “far too many” had turned in the eyes of the Times into “hundreds of innocent men… jailed at Guantanamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights.” Four short years of the administration’s Guantanamo policy had turned the “worst of the worst” into the oppressed of the earth.

Profile of Some Guantanamo Detainees

Allegations against detainees who went through the Combatant Status Review Tribunal process

  • 68 members of Al-Qaeda
  • 9 Al-Qaeda fighters
  • 101 people associated with Al-Qaeda
  • 64 members of the Taliban
  • 23 fighters for the Taliban
  • 43 people associated with the Taliban

Breakdown of Combatant Status Review Tribunal and Administrative Review Board summaries of low-value detainees

  • At least 179 traveled to Afghanistan for jihad.
  • At least 234 stayed in Al-Qaeda, Taliban, or other guest or safe houses.
  • At least 317 detainees took military or terrorist training in Afghanistan.
  • At least 151 actually fought for the Taliban, many of them on the front lines against the Northern Alliance.
  • At least 160 were at Tora Bora, Afghanistan.
  • At least 157 detainees’ names or aliases were found on computers, hard drives, or physical lists of Al-Qaeda operatives, material seized in raids on Al-Qaeda safe houses and facilities.
  • At least 136 detainees were captured under the following circumstances: military surrenders, live combat actions, traveling in a large pack of mujahedeen, or traveling in the company of senior Al-Qaeda figures.
  • Some 34 detainees served on Osama bin Laden’s security detail.