The Magazine

The Real Gitmo

What I saw at America's best detention facility for terrorists.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

Shortly after 5 A.M., a detainee with an uneven voice sings the call to prayer. After a few bars, a second detainee joins in by sounding out another hymn.

"That's unusual," a tower guard who looks bored after a few months on the job remarks. "Usually, just one of them does it."

Detainees assemble in a corner of the camp and begin praying. Others pace back and forth in front of their cells with prayer beads in hand. For several minutes all is quiet--eerily so. Some of the world's most dangerous terrorists lurk just a short distance from our perch atop a guard tower, but you would never know it.

Welcome to Camp 4 at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

The iconic images of Gitmo are not photos of Camp 4, however. The pictures that have captured the world's imagination are of detainees shackled on bended knee in bright orange jumpsuits with their eyes and ears covered. Those pictures were taken more than seven and a half years ago at Camp X-Ray, in the long corridor that runs down the middle of the camp.

Today that corridor is overrun with weeds and unruly grass, and the rest of the camp is in no better state of repair. Camp X-Ray housed "war on terror" detainees for just four months, from January to April 2002. It has long since been abandoned. Banana rats, which look like some mutant combination of possum and rat, now hang from the cages that once housed the detainees. Gone, too, are the orange jumpsuits. They have been replaced by tan, white, and other neutral-colored clothing. During my multi-day tour of Guantánamo Bay, one official tells me that some journalists from Turkey wanted to take pictures of the detainees in their bright orange jumpsuits. When this official explained the detainees no longer wear those outfits, the Turkish reporters asked if a detainee could be dressed up in one for the photos as that is what their readers expect to see.

The story is emblematic of the disconnect between life at Guantánamo as it is today, and the Guantánamo of popular mythology. It is the latter that is the basis for the Obama administration's decision to close the detention facilities there.

As one of his first acts in office, President Obama ordered Guantánamo shuttered by January 2010. He has since conceded that his administration will not meet that goal. But both he and his team remain committed to the task. The chief rationale they offer is that Guantánamo has so tarnished America's image that it has become a major recruiting tool for al Qaeda. During a press conference last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that al Qaeda's senior leaders have referred to Guantánamo some 32 times in their recruitment videos since 2001. Gibbs implied that this is a lot. It isn't. Al Qaeda refers to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the existence of Israel, as reasons to wage jihad far more frequently in its propaganda.

Gibbs pointed to the fact that senior al Qaeda leaders referred to Guantánamo four times in 2009 alone. Gibbs did not specify which messages he had in mind, but Zawahiri's August 5 tape, entitled "The Facts of Jihad and the Lies of the Hypocrites," is a typical example of al Qaeda's Gitmo-related propaganda. According to a 26-page translation published online by the NEFA Foundation, Zawahiri mentioned Guantánamo five times. By way of comparison, words related to "Iraq" and "Afghanistan" appear more than 70 times each. The words "Israel" and "Israelis" appear 39 times. The word "Zionist" appears another four times--in the context of an imagined American-Zionist conspiracy against the Muslim world. (According to Ayman al-Zawahiri, by the way, Obama is himself a participant in this conspiracy.) And the words "Jew," "Jewish," and "Jewishness" appear another 12 times.

Guantánamo has simply never been a major part of al Qaeda's recruitment strategy. But even if it were and we closed it, the terror masters would simply find the next pretext for justifying their acts. After all, if we are to close Guantánamo because al Qaeda objects to it, then why not abandon America's entire foreign policy agenda?

Nonetheless the White House presses on with closing Gitmo--even in the face of substantial controversy.

This past week, the administration confirmed that it had selected an underutilized correctional center in the town of Thomson, in northwest Illinois, as the new home for up to 100 Gitmo detainees. A letter to Illinois governor Pat Quinn announced the administration's plan for the federal government to buy the prison in Thomson and rebuild one section of it to make the facility even more secure than America's "supermax" prison in Colorado--where several convicted terrorists are currently housed. This assurance is intended to assuage any concerns over the government's ability to safely detain the Gitmo detainees on U.S. soil.

Ironically, however, most of the roughly 210 detainees still held at Guantánamo are not in supermax-type facilities at all. At least 70 percent live in communal settings like Camp 4. They can play soccer, basketball, or foosball; exercise on elliptical equipment; and consort with their fellow detainees for up to 20 hours per day in the outdoor recreation area. They can take art classes or learn English. And while tensions flare every now and again, life in Camp 4 is generally calm. Camp officials prefer that the detainees live in this type of setting. It's easier on the guards and everyone else involved. As the commander of Camp 4 explains, the detainees have to "do something really bad" to get locked up in one of the more secure facilities.

The detainees have access to several satellite television channels and, as one DoD handout notes, a library consisting of "more than 14,000 books, magazines, and DVDs in 18 languages." During a visit to the library, I noticed a few copies of the poetry of Rumi--a 13th-century Sufi mystic whose writings explore deeply spiritual, ethereal topics. Rumi's view of the world is diametrically opposed to that of al Qaeda's jihadists. He searched for the universal deity who he believed resided in us all, regardless of race or creed. Jihadists, on the other hand, believe they are compelled to war against anyone who dares to oppose their intolerant beliefs.

I ask the head librarian, "Do you get many requests for Rumi's books?"

With a slight chuckle she replies, "No, we don't get many requests for him. They aren't too interested in Rumi."

Oddly, the detainees are interested in many aspects of Western culture. Harry Potter is very popular, and with each new movie that comes out the detainees request more of J.K. Rowling's books.

"Everything you know about out there, they know about in here," the librarian says. That includes news events. In addition to satellite television, most of the detainees have access to three newspapers--two from the Muslim world and USA Today. The papers are censored, but only to remove any material that the detainees may find lewd, such as advertisements showing a man and woman kissing.

A while back, one detainee smashed a television set when he saw a woman's bare arms during a broadcast of a soccer match. In response, camp officials bolted down the televisions and put protective plastic casings around them. They have also gone out of their way to make sure that the detainees are not exposed to any other material they may find objectionable. For example, the nondescript faces of the foosball table's characters have been chipped off so that the detainees will not be offended by any hint of idolatry.

It is also surprising to learn the identity of some of the terrorists currently housed in the open-air facilities of Camp 4. Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was slated to be the 20th hijacker on September 11, 2001, reportedly lives here. There is little chance that the Obama administration will release al-Qahtani, despite all of the controversy surrounding the methods used during his interrogations. (Al-Qahtani was unquestionably subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment during the early days of Guantánamo.) The public outrage would simply be too great. So, it is likely that al-Qahtani will be transferred to the new facility in Illinois--or some other similarly secure facility in the United States--and such terrorists will undoubtedly pine for their days in Cuba once they are locked away in one of America's more severe correctional facilities.

An Italian journalist who accompanies me throughout much of the tour says that two Tunisian detainees who were recently transferred from Guantánamo to Italy to await trial are probably very upset right about now. They are being held in a maximum-security prison in Milan that he describes as "hell" compared with Gitmo. The Italian gentleman tells me this right after we tour the food-preparation facilities. There we found that the detainees are offered six types of meals, totaling between 5,000 and 6,000 calories, daily. In their more candid moments, the detainees complain to camp personnel that it is difficult for them to claim they have been "tortured" when they have pot bellies.

Not all of the facilities at Guantánamo are like Camp 4, of course. Camp 5 is a maximum-security facility for detainees who refuse to be compliant. (A detainee is deemed to be compliant if he generally obeys orders and does not threaten the guards or others. Compliance does not hinge on the detainee cooperating with interrogators.) Echoing his counterpart at Camp 4, the commander of Camp 5 says that the ultraviolent individuals kept in his camp have "done something really bad" to warrant segregation from the communal areas of Guantánamo. Personnel at Camp 5 say that the detainees' abuse of guards is so frequent that they would not even venture a guess as to how many instances occur in any given week.

Camp 6 was built as a medium-security facility, and some of its cell blocks offer communal-style living. It is used as a step-down facility where detainees who are in the process of proving that they can be more compliant are placed prior to returning to the more permissive environment of Camp 4. Some detainees, however, choose a different path. Our tour of Camp 6 was cut short when an undisclosed "incident" occurred.

There are other detention facilities at Guantánamo that we do not tour. Camps 1, 2, and 3 were built as a replacement for Camp X-Ray, and the detainees were moved there in April 2002. Those camps are mostly vacant today as they, in turn, were replaced by Camps 4, 5, and 6 beginning in February 2003.

Then, there is the mysterious Camp 7. Throughout the tour of Guantánamo, I jokingly pester the military guides about Camp 7 because, quite frankly, I really want to see it. Camp 7 was opened in 2006 when the Bush administration relocated the "high value detainees" from the CIA's so-called "black sites" to Guantánamo. Among its current residents are the five September 11 co-conspirators, including al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who the Obama administration has pledged to bring to New York for a federal trial.

For many New Yorkers, it is deeply unsettling to think of these al Qaeda supervillains standing trial just blocks away from where their henchmen killed thousands of Americans. It is more unsettling when you realize that even here at Guantánamo, a highly secure military detention facility in the middle of the Atlantic, they are kept segregated from the rest of the detainee population. I never do get to see Camp 7. The military personnel who escort me around the island all insist that they do not know where it is located. I believe them--that is just how secure Camp 7 is.

The more you learn about the real Guantánamo, the more the Obama administration's decision to move any of the detainees to the continental United States seems entirely unnecessary. The detainees probably can be safely housed on domestic soil, but why take the risk?

What's more: The facilities that are required already exist here in Cuba. Camps 5 and 6--the maximum and medium security facilities that house detainees who refuse to be compliant--were modeled after existing correctional facilities in the Midwest. Both camps (like the rest of Guantánamo) are maintained in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. These camps have more than enough capacity to continue to hold the detainees the Obama administration now wants to transfer to the United States. And even Attorney General Eric Holder conceded after visiting the camps earlier this year that Guantánamo is "well-run" with no sign of detainee mistreatment.

Why, then, is the Obama administration determined to close Guantánamo and reinvent the wheel in Thomson, Illinois? The answer has everything to do with anachronistic perceptions and an anti-military mythology that dates from the four months when Camp X-Ray was operational.

The only reason Camp X-Ray still stands today is that a U.S. court has ordered the military to keep it erect. There are active investigations into allegations of abuse, and the courts want the facility accessible until those investigations are closed. The court's order has not, however, stopped the relentless march of time, and it is difficult to see how any real investigative work could be done here today.

As we wade through the overgrown vegetation, our military guide points to the piping in the back of one of the cages. It is nothing more than a round hole protruding from a horizontal pipe running from one side of the cage to the other.

"The pipes were put in to give the detainees a urinal," she explains. "They had buckets too, but the detainees would throw the contents of the buckets at the guards."

The pipes were supposed to mitigate the detainees' penchant for throwing "feces cocktails"--as they are known at Gitmo--but it did not work. The detainees used whatever was at hand to lash out. Some still do to this day--despite the fact they all have access to modern plumbing.

The original doors to the cages were poorly thought-out as well. They swung back and forth, meaning that defiant detainees could crash the doors into the guards as they entered the cages. That was rectified after a new type of door, which only opened inward, was installed.

Though Camp X-Ray is a shell of its former self, it is clear that even in its heyday it was a primitive facility. The whole place has an ad hoc feel to it. The camp was originally built to house Cuban and Haitian migrants who had committed criminal acts in the mid-1990s, but was closed in 1996. It was rebuilt so quickly for its new mission in late 2001 that the fencing from a nearby sports field had to be repurposed during construction. The makeshift Camp X-Ray is symbolic, in many ways, of the military's scramble to deal with the detainees it was responsible for holding.

As we walk around the camp, I can't help but think back to January 2002, before "Guantánamo" had ever become a buzzword. The "war on terror" was just a few months old, and the United States had yet to capture any of the most senior al Qaeda leaders. At the time, we had little intelligence on our terrorist enemies. Desperate to understand the designs of our jihadist foes, the U.S. military went about trying to figure out what its detainees, who did not wear military uniforms or make their "rank" easy to discern, knew about al Qaeda's and the Taliban's operations.

Even though this was a difficult process, the intelligence that was collected has been invaluable. It has directly supported combat operations in Afghanistan. It has deepened the military's understanding of how terrorists are recruited and trained, and how they construct bombs (including improvised explosive devices that are used to kill American servicemen in Afghanistan). It has shed light on how terrorists are shuttled around the world and how they are financed. This intelligence has contributed greatly to America's overall understanding of the global terror network in numerous ways.

But in the public debate over closing Gitmo, the intelligence garnered has rarely been discussed, even though thousands of pages of documents detailing what the government has learned have been declassified and released online. These documents, consisting mainly of files created during the detainees' combatant status review tribunal and administrative review board hearings, are readily available on both the DoD's and the New York Times's websites. For the most part, the media just ignore them.

While the intelligence collected has been given short shrift, there has been no lack of stories about abuse that allegedly occurred during interrogations. The early efforts at Camp X-Ray were certainly clumsy. The first detainees did not want to volunteer any information, so the military forced them into involuntary interrogations. As our military guide explained during the tour, the detainees were strapped to wooden carts and wheeled over to one of three interrogation huts just outside the holding pens. That spectacle must have exacerbated tensions as it occurred in plain view of the detainees.

The temptation is to imagine that interrogations at Guantánamo are performed in a similar fashion today. They are not. Rear Admiral Thomas Copeman III, who took over as the commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo in June, told me that there have not been any involuntary interrogations here in approximately four years. The only way a detainee is interrogated is if he volunteers to be so. Surprisingly, between 80 and 90 detainees have volunteered to attend an interrogation during the past year alone.

The detainees do not always give up real information. Sometimes they just want the treats that are given as a reward for their nominal participation in the interrogation sessions. (The interrogators offer incentives, such as extra candy bars, for the detainees to come to the interrogation rooms.) If the detainees don't cooperate, they are simply brought back to their camp. But even using this comparatively stress-free approach to interrogations the U.S. military is still acquiring important intelligence. The intelligence community consistently finds a significant amount of value in new Gitmo intelligence.

The military's detention policies have changed significantly too. During our tour of Camp X-Ray, our guide recounted how the first riot at Guantánamo broke out. It started when a guard mistakenly thought a detainee was being disobedient after he failed to comply with an order. In reality, the detainee was praying and refused to break prayer to respond to the guard. When the guard entered the detainee's cage and disrupted the ritual, the inmates thought their religion was being disrespected and a riot broke out. This type of mistake was avoidable, and to the military's credit, it has spent a considerable amount of time and money learning from its mistakes.

There have been further detainee uprisings. During one, the detainees used the blades from fans as weapons. The detainees themselves had requested the fans as a comfort item, but quite obviously had an ulterior motive in mind. That is how the dance here at Guantánamo works. It is a balancing act, and military officials must be constantly mindful of who it is they are dealing with.

I talk with "Zak," a native Jordanian who has lived all over the world. For the last several years, he has been the chief detainee liaison. Zak is tasked with listening to the detainees' grievances and, when appropriate, trying to rectify them. It is a thankless job and he endures his share of abusive comments from the detainees. He also teaches the guards about the detainees' religion so they can avoid obvious miscommunication. This is a tricky task, to say the least, given the detainees' radical beliefs.

One of the more damaging myths about Guantánamo is that U.S. military personnel regularly and intentionally desecrate the Koran. But only a handful of instances of Koran abuse have ever been verified, and some of those instances were completely unintentional. In 2005, Newsweek reported that interrogators had flushed a -detainee's copy down the toilet. This was not true. Newsweek retracted the story but only after it had sparked riots in the Muslim world. Zak says that while he does not know of any instances of U.S. military personnel disrespecting the Koran in such a manner, he has witnessed detainees doing so. One detainee ripped the pages out of his Koran and flushed them down his toilet in what was probably an act of rage or defiance, Zak says.

Knowing that the U.S. military will be roundly criticized for any hint of Koran desecration, the detainees play games with their holy books. A common practice, Zak says, is for the detainees to put their Korans in the middle of the floor of their cells, create a fuss, and then watch as the military guards try to avoid making any contact with Allah's word.

Zak also recounts one story in which a detainee claimed that a military guard had urinated on his Koran. When Zak inspected the detainee's copy, he noticed a perfect semi-circle imprinted on its pages. Zak quickly deduced that the detainee had pressed his bottle of Gatorade against his Koran's pages to make it look as if it had been defiled. (Yes, the detainees get sports drinks.)

Another myth is that detainees who are on hunger strike are brutally force-fed. During a visit to the hospital, we're shown small pullout tables with a few nose tubes, several cans of Ensure, and other dietary supplements. The way the feeding works is for a long tube to be put through the detainee's nose down to his stomach. The dietary supplement is then poured through the tube. The detainees get to pick the flavor of the supplement that they ingest because even though they aren't swallowing the supplement they do get an after-taste. Butter pecan is their usual preference.

The detainees' lawyers describe the act of "force-feeding" as barbaric and tantamount to torture. Looking at the nose tubes, which are only slightly thicker than the average strand of spaghetti, it is clear that the "force-feeding is torture" tale, like so many others about Gitmo, is sheer nonsense. Admiral Copeman volunteered to be "force-fed" and calls it a "nonevent." Copeman's predecessor did it for an entire week and had no problem maintaining his weight or regular exercise schedule. According to the medical personnel, some of the hunger strikers (not all) use their visits to the hospital area to eat full meals. It is a matter of pride for them to pretend that they remain committed to the cause in front of other detainees. Once they are out of sight, however, they scarf down real food.

Copeman has only been on the job for six months, so I ask him what his biggest adjustment has been. He says that he is not used to having a court give him an order. Copeman is referring, at least in part, to the habeas corpus decisions coming out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. As a result of the Supreme Court's Boumediene decision, the detainees have the right to challenge their detention in America's courts. If the executive branch does not challenge the courts' rulings, federal judges effectively decide whether or not the military can continue to hold detainees.

On one of the days I was at Gitmo, a Kuwaiti named Fouad al-Rabiah was sent back to his home country. D.C. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly had ordered that the United States release Rabiah. In her ruling, Kollar-Kotelly demonstrated disturbing ignorance about al Qaeda. She concluded, for example, that Rabiah had established his bona fides as a legitimate charity worker prior to his two suspicious trips to Afghanistan in 2001. Therefore, there was no reason to suspect that Rabiah had traveled to al Qaeda and Taliban country for nefarious reasons. In reality, the "charities" that Rabiah worked for are all known fronts for al Qaeda and have never pursued legitimate humanitarian objectives. This was just one of the many flaws in Kollar-Kotelly's ruling. Regardless, the military complied with her decision.

Unless Congress is able to overrule the Obama administration, in all likelihood, the Guantánamo detention facilities will be shuttered at some point in 2010. The Obama administration has spent too much political capital in pursuit of this cause to abandon it now. The president and his team are likely convinced that it is the right thing to do. But in justifying his decision to close Gitmo, President Obama has implicitly sided with those who have condemned the actions of our service men and women in Guantánamo.

When the president signed the executive order to close Gitmo in January 2009, he said that the message he was sending to the world "is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism .  .  . in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals." His implication was that the many critics of Gitmo had a point: America deserved blame.

The U.S. military may have made mistakes at Gitmo, but it did so in the context of an extremely difficult situation. And it has taken extraordinary steps to rectify them and improve facilities that, as we should never forget, house men who are committed to an extreme ideology that justifies acts of mass terror.

As we leave the part of Guantánamo Bay that houses Camps 4, 5, and 6, we are driven through the security checkpoint one last time. I see a sign displaying the "value of the week." These signs are sprinkled around the exterior of the detention facilities and are a transparent attempt to boost troop morale, which senior camp officials say has sagged in the face of the relentless criticism.

The value this week is "Pride." The troopers who have served here should be proud. And I know that we should be proud of them. They have served their country honorably.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.