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Guantanamo's Unhappy Campers

From the February 11, 2002 issue: Some strange things are happening at Gitmo.

5:00 PM, Feb 1, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA

It's 5 A.M. at the Roosevelt Roads Naval station in Puerto Rico, and 20 journalists straggle to the gate in sleep-deprived silence to catch a plane to Guantanamo Bay. Many of us haven't been up this early in years. But after flying thousands of miles, then pub-crawling through the streets of Old San Juan last night, we are here because our military escorts insist we show up at this time, though the flight actually leaves four hours later. "The military operates on one principle," explains a savvy veteran: "Hurry up and wait."

If we're not happy, that goes double for our public affairs babysitters. "I'm up to my ears in Vieques," says Navy Lt. Corey Barker, of the nearby bombing range/public relations fiasco that has been protested by everyone from Al Sharpton to obscure Kennedys. Now, Barker is stuck minding us as we light out for Guantanamo, the American naval station on the southeastern tip of Cuba. It is there that 158 al Qaeda/Taliban prisoners are being detained because, depending on who you ask, it is an ideal, sunny clime, it's not subject to the get-out-of-jail escape hatches of U.S. federal law, or because, as one senior Pentagon official says, "The lawyers didn't want to go on 14-hour flights to some guano rock in the Pacific."

Inside the air terminal, our baggage handlers check us in with the efficiency of Bulgarian DMV workers. A sign on the wall says "Air Terminal of the Year 2000." "I'd hate to see who got second place," whispers one reporter. As we wait for our flight on a creaky Pan Am jet, we are shunted off to the "VIP" room, so named because it has a coffee pot and seascape paintings that look pilfered from a south Florida retirement village. Here, we are given our media "indoctrination" packages, never an encouraging word if you aspire to reportorial autonomy. As we sit watching CNN, an unfounded rumor gains currency. Though it's Saturday, and we're supposed to be in Cuba until Monday, the military has changed plans and is going to make us leave Guantanamo Sunday morning. "One thing's for sure," says a wire reporter, "you won't have to sort through all your notes to decide what to lead with."

Fearing an abbreviated schedule, I commence valuable newsgathering. Knowing that in some Taliban-held provinces, pederasty rivaled headless-goat polo (buzkashi) as the favorite pastime, I ask a Naval officer if there are any reports of Guantanamo prisoners turning to man-love. "Oh God no," he says. "Though there are some Air Force personnel over there, so who knows what's going on?"

Another officer relays something we'll hear repeated often: that because of international political pressure, the prisoners are getting coddled. The latest report has Army guards directing detainees on which way to pray to Mecca. "They're actually going to paint arrows on the floors of the cells so they'll know to face north," he says. "You mean east," I say. "North, east, whatever," he replies, "I'm Lutheran--I don't know where the hell it is."

A FEW hours later, we touch down at the Guantanamo landing strip on the isolated leeward side of the base (Gitmo, as it is nicknamed, is actually bisected by Guantanamo Bay). After getting sniffed by a German shepherd who's more interested in bombs than my colleague's Percocet, we're escorted to the media center, an ugly wood-paneled affair that sits next to a pink hangar. After another hour or two of waiting, a mouthy reporter loudly calls his editor so we can all hear him report the latest: "Same shit, different day. Though they're really cleaning up the media center. Curtains, an air conditioner, even a freakin' bulletin board!"

The hospitality ends there. A stern sign on the bulletin board admonishes us to clean up after ourselves. The goodies set out on a table (grape beverage powder and apple jelly from meals-ready-to-eat packs) practically scream, "Can't wait till you leave." Many of us had secretly harbored the fantasy that we could talk our overseers into letting us go right up to the prisoners' cells, the terrorist equivalent of a field trip to the ASPCA.

But as a gaggle of public affairs officers enter, they lay down two immutable laws: There will be no access to detainees (the Geneva Convention forbids making them a "public curiosity"). And we can go only where the officers take us. Running the public affairs show is Army Lt. Col. William Costello, a bearish soldier who looks like the kind of guy who enjoys breaking things on his face. His hard, dark orbs dart to and fro while he delivers a good news/bad news proposition. The good news is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will be visiting the detainees' Camp X-Ray the next morning. The bad news is that the unfounded rumor is founded--the Pentagon press corps is coming with him, and we'll be forced to leave a day early.