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Guantanamo Is Not a Prison


Several weeks ago, I took the infamous media tour of the facilities at Guantanamo. From the moment I arrived on a dilapidated Air Sunshine plane to the time I boarded it heading home, I had no doubt that I was on a foreign planet or, at the very least, visiting an impeccably constructed movie set. Along with two European colleagues, I was treated to two-days-plus of a military-tour schedule packed with site visits and interviews (none with actual prisoners) designed to “make transparent” the base, its facilities, and its manifold contributions to our country’s national security.

 

The multi-storied, maximum security complexes, rimmed in concertina wire, set off from the road by high wire-mesh fences, and the armed tower guards at Camp Delta, present a daunting sight. Even the less restrictive quarters for “compliant” inmates belied any notion that Guantanamo is merely a holding facility for those awaiting charges or possessing useful information.

 

In the course of my brief stay, thanks to my military handlers, I learned a great deal about Gitmo decorum, as the military would like us to practice it. My escorts told me how best to describe the goings-on at Guantanamo, regardless of what my own eyes and prior knowledge told me.

 

Here, in a nutshell, is what I picked up. Consider this a guide of sorts to what the officially sanctioned report on Guantanamo would look like, wrapped in the proper decorum and befitting the jewel-in-the-crown of American offshore prisons… or, to be Pentagon-accurate, “detention facilities.”

 

1. Guantanamo is not a prison. According to the military handlers who accompanied us everywhere, Guantanamo is officially a “detention facility.” Although the two most recently built complexes, Camps Five and Six, were actually modeled on maximum and medium security prisons in Indiana and Michigan respectively, and although the use of feeding tubes and the handling of prisoners now take into account the guidelines of the American Corrections Association (and increasingly those of the Bureau of Prisons as well), it is not acceptable to use the word “prison” while at Gitmo.

 

2. Consistent with not being a prison, Guantanamo has no prisoners, only enemies, specifically, “unlawful enemy combatants.” One of my colleagues was even chastised for using the word “detainee.” “Detained enemy combatants” or “unlawful enemy combatants,” we learned, were the proper terms.

 

3. Guantanamo is not about guilt and innocence — or, once an enemy combatant, always an enemy combatant. “Today, it is not about guilt or innocence. It’s about unlawful enemy combatants,” Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr.,the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo tells us. “And they are all unlawful enemy combatants.” This, despite the existence of the official category “No Longer an Enemy Combatant” which does not come up in our discussions. Nor was the possibility that any of the detainees at Guantanamo might have been mistakenly detained ever discussed. As the administrator for the tribunals that are to determine the status of each detainee explained to us, the U.S. Government takes “a risk when we transfer” detainees out of Guantanamo.

 

4. No trustworthy lawyers come to Guantanamo. Our handlers use the term “habeas lawyers” as a seemingly derogatory catch-all for lawyers in general, both defense attorneys — those who are defending their clients before the military commissions — and habeas attorneys, those who seek to challenge in U.S. courts the government’s right to detain their clients. The U.S. military and its Public Affairs Officers are convinced that the terrorists are transmitting information to their colleagues in the outside world via their lawyers. According to our escorts, “habeas lawyers” may be the unwitting pawns of terrorists. As a power-point presentation at the outset of our formal tour (and as subsequent remarks make clear to us), it is the belief of the American authorities that the detainees are using their lawyers in accordance with the directives outlined in the al-Qaeda training manual that was discovered in Manchester, England in 2000. This manual, they assure us, encourages terrorists to “take advantage of visits with habeas lawyers to communicate and exchange information with those outside.”

 

5. Recently, at least, few if any reliable journalists have been reporting on Guantanamo; only potential betrayers are writing about it. “The media” arrive with ostensibly open eyes. Yet these guests, graciously hosted from morning to night, go home perversely refusing to be complimentary to their hosts. They suffer from “the chameleon effect,” as I was told more than once by military public information office personnel, and “we just don’t understand it.” For our part, we visitors didn’t understand why we were forbidden to walk anywhere — even to the bathroom — by ourselves, talk to anyone other than those we were introduced to (none actual prisoners), or even take a morning run up and down the street we were lodged on, although there was not a prisoner in sight.

 

6. After years of isolation, the detainees still possess valuable information — especially today. When asked what kind of useful information the detainees could possibly have for interrogators, many already locked away in Gitmo for over five years, the answer was: “I believe that we are, in fact, getting good and useful and interesting intelligence — even after five years.” Right now, they are especially useful. This is because, Admiral Harris told us, “We have up-and-coming leadership in al-Qaeda and in the Taliban in Afghanistan [and] we don’t know what they look like. There’s never been a photograph taken of them or there’s never been a photograph that US forces have of them. But their contemporaries… are quite often the same individuals that are in the camps here today. So we will work with law enforcement… and their sketch artists will work with these detainees, the compliant and cooperative detainees… And those pictures will be sent out to the forward fighting area.” No one asked just how reliable our own memories would be after five years of isolated detention.

 

7. Guantanamo contains no individuals — inside the wire or out. The prisoners are referred to not by name, but by number. The guards and others, even outside the confines of the prison camp, remove the Velcroed names which are on their uniforms, leaving blank strips on their chests where their identity would normally be, or they replace their names with their ranks. Either way, they strive to remain anonymous. They tell us that they fear retaliation against themselves and their families from a presumably all-seeing, all-reaching jihadi network. With the media, most follow the same rules. We, too, could evidently land them in trouble with al-Qaeda. Thus, many refuse to tell us their names, warning those we greet to be careful not to mistakenly call them by name in front of us.

 

8. Guantanamo’s deep respect for Islam is unappreciated. All the food served in the prison is halal, prepared in a separate kitchen, constructed solely for the detainees. All cells, outdoor areas, and even the detainee waiting room in the courthouse where the Military Commissions will be held, have arrows pointing to Mecca. All compliant detainees have prayer rugs and prayer beads. All detainees, no matter how they behave, have Korans. The library includes books on Islamic history, Islamic philosophy, and on Mohammed and his followers. Our escorts are armored against our protests about the denial of legal rights to prisoners. The right to challenge their detention in court, actually being charged with a crime, or adhering to the basic rules of procedure and evidence that undergird American law — none of this is important. They do not see that what’s at stake is not building a mosque at Gitmo, any more than it is about serving gourmet food, or about the cushy, leather interrogation chairs we are shown. It is about extending the most basic of legal rights, including the presumption of innocence, to those detained here.

 

9. At Guantanamo, hard facts are scarce. This, we are told, is a security measure. “As the 342nd media group to come through here, you’ll notice that we speak vaguely. We can’t be specific. You will notice that we talk in approximate terms and estimates only. Those are operational security measures. We don’t want to take away position” — a phrase which I took as shorthand for revealing actual numbers, names, locations, dates, etc.

 

Typical examples of preserving Gitmo security through a refusal to give out specific facts:

 

“What is that building?” [I am referring to one directly in our view.]

 

“Which building?”

 

“How long has the lieutenant been here?”

 

“Since she got here.”

 

“Where is Radio Range?” [This is the area on which the camps are built.]

 

“I never heard of it.”

 

10. Guantanamo houses no contradictions. And if you notice any — and they’re hard to miss — it’s best to keep quiet about them, unless you want a sergeant without a name chastising you about the dangers posed by enemy combatants, or one of the officers without a name reprimanding your lower ranking escort for giving out “misinformation.” Stories are regularly presented to portray a policy as particularly generous to the detainees; only later does someone mention that it might have been an answer to the needs of the guards themselves. A typical example:

 

“We allow two hours of recreation a day in order to comply with the Geneva Conventions,” they tell us. But a guide at another moment leads us to believe that there is actually a more pressing reason for allowing the recreation. “We need them to go outside so that we can search their cells for weapons and contraband.”

 

These sorts of contradictions leave me ultimately feeling sorry for our escorts. It is not their fault that they know so little about the place they are charged with explaining to us. Most of them arrived roughly eight months ago and were handed a defensive script. They are often quite sincere when they tell us that they don’t know answers to our questions.

 

They actually don’t know what went on before their arrival, or where things were located in earlier days, or if perchance abuses or outbursts, not to speak of torture, might have occurred at Gitmo, or even who was in charge as little as a year ago. Few, if any, from the old days are there to instruct or correct them.

 

Of course, if they wanted to, they could learn the details that many of us have picked up over the years simply by reading or by talking to those who spent time there. But this is not their task; they are but mouthpieces, nothing more, as they try to tell us time and again when we ask our questions. And, anyway, they themselves expect to leave relatively unscathed sometime this spring.

 

Finally, for those of us who want to write about Guantanamo and who are grateful for having been shown around and had the myths and realities of the Bush administration’s most notorious detention facility laid out so clearly, a final lesson:

 

11. Those who fail to reproduce the official narrative are not welcome back. “Tell it the wrong way and you won’t be back,” one of our escorts warns me over lunch.

 

Only time will tell if I got it right.

 

 

Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law and is the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib and editor of The Torture Debate in America.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]

 

 

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