On a steamy morning last month, as Congress was debating the treatment of the approximately five hundred terrorist suspects being held inside the United States-run military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a small delegation of American officials led a tour through one of the prison camp’s empty cellblocks. The International Committee of the Red Cross has made inspections of the site, the results of which it keeps confidential, and a few dozen American lawyers have had limited visits with detainees. Yet most of the prisoners, who come from some forty countries, have been held virtually incommunicado, without legal charges, for three and a half years.
The cellblock, which had been fashioned from steel shipping crates, resembled a horse barn. Six-foot-by-eight-foot cells, with walls and doors of metal mesh, stood in two facing rows. The cells were protected by a low metal roof but were open to the tropical air. Each door featured a narrow slot, at waist height, through which meals and other items could be handed to detainees, and handcuffs and belly chains could be secured. The first cell on the right was laid out like a display model, with neatly folded prison garb and an array of what the officials called “comfort items”—awarded to detainees for good behavior, or confiscated as punishment. Among these luxuries was a roll of toilet paper. The cell was furnished with a thin plastic-covered mattress on a metal slab; a metal sink; a metal toilet; and a surgical mask, which could be hung from the wall, allowing a detainee to store a small Koran inside it.
“I’d be proud to let the media see anything in this camp,” Colonel Mike Bumgarner, the commander of the Joint Detention Operations Group, the military unit that oversees the daily handling of detainees, said. “I’d gladly invite the world in to see our guards in action. I’m very proud of what they do. They treat the detainees humanely.” Meals, he said, were excellent. “They get honey-glazed chicken and rice pilaf. They get lemon-baked fish.” He noted that some detainees don’t like to have their vegetables touching their meat: “So we serve them separately, in little Styrofoam clamshells, like the ones you get at a fast-food restaurant.” He went on, “We have to be like the parents here. In loco parentis. That’s how we look at it. It’s like a big family.”
As we reached the end of the cellblock, hysterical shouts, in broken English, erupted from a caged exercise area nearby. “Come here!” a man screamed. “See here! They are liars!” He was middle-aged, with a full beard and skinny bow legs, and wore an orange shirt and shorts. (“Privileged”—that is, coöperative—detainees wear white or beige uniforms.) “No sleep!” he yelled. “No food! No medicine! No doctor! Everybody sick here!” A soldier near the detainee began ferociously signalling to the officials leading the tour to usher me out. As I was leaving, the detainee pointed to his own cellblock, which was off limits to journalists, and screamed, “They are liars! Liars! Liars!”
“His English is pretty good,” one official joked wanly.
The military officials who run the Guantánamo prison maintain that almost all of the detainees’ charges are untrue. A training manual written by Al Qaeda leaders, which is known as the Manchester Manual, because a copy of it was confiscated during a 2000 raid in England, counsels Islamists to “complain of mistreatment while in prison” and say that “torture was inflicted on them.” Bumgarner said, “They are trained to make false accusations. It’s part of their P.R.”
Brigadier General Jay W. Hood, the top commander of the camp, has worked to improve administrative control since taking over, in March, 2004. He has implemented random inspections of the cellblocks, to insure that “standard operating procedures” are being followed, and he has banished regular “cavity searches” for detainees. Lawyers and human-rights workers say that detainees are being treated less harshly, although their mental state continues to deteriorate. In an interview, Hood said that there have been “no demonstrated or consistent trends of abuse” inside Guantánamo, and “certainly nothing rising to the level of torture.” From the beginning, however, the Guantánamo Bay prison camp was conceived by the Bush Administration as a place that could operate outside the system of national and international laws that normally govern the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. Soon after September 11th, the Administration argued that the Guantánamo site, which America had been leasing from the Cuban government since 1903, was not bound by the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, the Administration claimed that terrorist suspects detained at the site were not ordinary criminals or prisoners of war; rather, they would be classified under a new rubric, “unlawful combatants.” This new class of suspects would be tried not in U.S. courts but in military tribunals, the Administration announced. In February, 2002, President Bush issued a broad directive that required American troops to treat detainees “humanely,” in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions, within the limits of “military necessity.” A year later, he explicitly denounced the use of torture.
A series of internal Department of Defense investigations found what General Hood described as “isolated cases where individuals hadn’t followed standard operating procedures.” Many of the incidents addressed by the Pentagon had been widely reported in the media, making the camp a focus of international outrage. In one case, a female interrogator, attempting to unsettle a Muslim detainee, smeared fake menstrual blood on him. And on five separate occasions Korans were defiled; one soldier urinated through a ventilation shaft, splashing the text—accidentally, according to the Pentagon. (This spring, Newsweek reported that military investigators had evidence that guards at Guantánamo had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The Bush Administration adamantly denied the charge, and, ultimately, the magazine admitted that it did not have sufficient sourcing to stand by the story.) In each acknowledged case of impropriety at Guantánamo, Hood stressed, the transgressors had been reprimanded, but he doubted that their actions could be said to “rise to the level of abuse.”