It’s been a busy summer at the detention center at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. The joint task force in charge of the 226 remaining detainees—they are never called “prisoners”—is spending about $440,000 to expand the recreation yards at Camp 6, a medium-security facility. At nearby Camp 4, which offers communal living for the most “compliant” captives, the soccer yard is being enlarged. At Camp 5, a maximum-security facility, another new, $73,000 classroom is under construction, and satellite TV cables have just been installed. In March, Joint Task Force Guantánamo added art classes to the thrice-weekly instruction it offers in Arabic, Pashtu, and English. And the estimated 16 detainees who have been cleared for release as soon as Washington can find countries willing to accept them have just received training on new laptop computers, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.
Though President Obama vowed on his second day in office to close the detention center within a year—the January 22 deadline is now less than five months away—Gitmo’s officers say they intend to continue spending previously budgeted funds to improve life at the center until the last detainee leaves. “It’s business as usual around here,” the task force’s deputy commander, Brigadier General Rafael O’Ferrall, told me two weeks ago during one of the weekly tours that Gitmo offers journalists, legislators, military and other officials, human-rights groups, and other “distinguished visitors,” more than 1,800 of whom visited last year.
The point of the tour is to show that Gitmo, which President Obama called a “stain” on America’s reputation, has become a model, if somewhat surreal, detention center. But another message is implicit in the barrage of statistics about the services and amenities being offered to such ostensibly dangerous people: closing Gitmo, now that it has been transformed into a first-class detention facility, is a largely empty political gesture that makes little sense for either the detainees or tax-paying Americans.
My hosts would never dare publicly challenge their commander-in-chief’s orders. But they clearly believe that Gitmo no longer deserves to be seen as a symbol of human-rights abuses. “This place is synonymous with military abuse and it’s just not fair,” says Rear Admiral Thomas H. Copeman III, the task force’s commander, who took charge only two months ago. “In the last five and a half years, there has not been a single substantiated allegation of abuse.”
Officers here are eager to distance themselves from the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Bush administration officials approved soon after 9/11, one of the most notorious of which was quickly rescinded. “No one was ever waterboarded at Gitmo,” says Army colonel Bruce E. Vargo, commander of Gitmo’s Joint Detention Group (a division of the joint task force). The issue is fresh in the public mind. Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a prosecutor to investigate alleged CIA abuse of detainees in the wake of last month’s Justice Department decision, prompted by an ACLU lawsuit, to release more of a CIA inspector general’s 2004 report documenting detainee abuses. Most of those abuses, however, apparently did not take place at Gitmo. A 2005 Pentagon report concluded, after examining 26 complaints from FBI agents involving a small portion of over 24,000 interrogations here, that while some “special interrogation plans” against a few “high-value detainees” were cumulatively “degrading and abusive,” they “did not rise to the level of prohibited inhumane treatment” or torture. Further, those techniques—such as loud music, sleep deprivation, temperature manipulation, strip searches, prolonged shackling, and being doused with water—ended long ago, officers say. Since 2004, interrogation methods have adhered to the U.S. Army field manual, says Paul B. Rester, the Pentagon official in charge of interrogations: “Loud music has no place in my world.”
Officers seem intent on restoring the center’s image, sparing little effort or expense to improve Gitmo. In addition to providing captives with prayer rugs, beads, caps, and Korans in their native languages, soldiers are instructed not to interrupt prayer five times a day. Arrows point toward Mecca. Female journalists are asked not to wear perfume near the cells. The center spends roughly $4 million a year—or $17,467 a prisoner at its current occupancy rate—offering detainees a choice of six different halal meals a day, totaling between 4,500 and 5,500 calories. The kitchen prepares two Islamic “feast” meals a week and offers fresh food—such as yogurt, veggie-burger patties with fresh garlic and onion, and scrambled eggs and waffles.
In fact, obesity is increasingly a problem, says Gitmo’s chief physician, a reservist who volunteered for this six-month assignment and found the “professional and compassionate” medical care offered here stunning. The detainees make roughly 7,800 visits per year to receive state-of-the-art medical care. That includes colonoscopies for “age-appropriate” detainees, 25 of which have been performed so far.
Hunger strikes are allowed here, but only along with “voluntary force-feeding”—a phrase admittedly worthy of Orwell. Each day, most of the protesters (about 18 percent of the detainees, according to Vargo) line up for Ensure nutritional supplements. They ingest the supplements not through the mouth but through the nostril, via a yellow, spaghetti-size tube lubricated with olive oil, which detainees prefer to the petroleum jelly commonly used in American hospitals. (Butter pecan is the most popular of the five available flavors, the doctor says.) A full meal can be consumed in as little as 15 minutes. However gruesome this sounds, the procedure is neither inhumane nor painful, Copeman asserts. He has tried it himself: “It’s a big nothing sandwich.” Of course, those who don’t “volunteer” are shackled and force-fed anyway. “They have a right to protest, and we have an obligation to keep them alive and healthy while they do so,” Copeman explains.
The physician calls Gitmo’s medical care far superior to what most Americans get, even his own relatively pampered patients back in Beverly Hills. A fact sheet states that the center has one medical staff member for every two detainees and a licensed provider for every 57, compared with the U.S. national average of one primary-care provider for every 390 people (or the one-to-5,300 ratio in Afghanistan). Eight detainees have been fitted with prosthetic devices. Detainees are also screened for, and when possible vaccinated against, a variety of illnesses—diphtheria, tuberculosis, H1N1 and other flu viruses, and HIV—most of which went undiagnosed in their own countries. Four detainees have hearing aids. “This place embodies the best of what we do as Americans,” the doctor tells me, without a trace of irony. Are the detainees grateful for this care? “Some are, some aren’t,” he says. But like his clientele back in California, “most detainees don’t want to die.”
Still, some clearly do: there have been five documented suicides so far at Gitmo and many more unsuccessful attempts. The latest—Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, a 31-year-old Yemeni held here since 2002—killed himself in June, apparently by hoarding pills and downing them all at once, despite monitoring in the facility’s psychiatric ward. (An internal investigation is ongoing.) Depression and other mental ailments among detainees are common, doctors acknowledge, and afflict some 13 percent of detainees.
So Gitmo continues to expand its “intellectual stimulation program” for detainees, whose education ranges from nonexistent to postgraduate. In addition to a library of over 15,000 books in a dozen languages, magazines, puzzles, electronic games, and newspapers—two mainstream Arabic dailies are offered twice weekly along with USA Today—there are over 315 movies on DVD and up to five hours a day of five-channel satellite TV. Detainees may order between two and eight books a week. Librarians black out pictures of scantily clad women and other photos that detainees find offensive.
What Gitmo is not doing, however, is trying to rehabilitate or deradicalize its remaining detainees, as does the detention program in Iraq headed last year by General Douglas Stone. There, fewer than 1 percent of the 26,000 Iraqis detained went back to the fight after being released. Recidivism among Gitmo detainees released so far is higher—from a low estimate of 2.5 percent to the Pentagon’s estimate of at least 5 percent and perhaps as high as 14 percent. “We must recognize that we are engaged in an ideological war and that these detainees have been warriors on that front,” Stone tells me. “In a battlefield of the mind, no matter how humanely we treat these people—and we must do so as Americans—they will continue hating us unless they lose faith in their extremist interpretation of Islam.”
But Gitmo has shunned deradicalization programs, perhaps because of the political heat to which it has already been subjected. There are, for instance, no classes that offer detainees alternative mainstream interpretations of the Koran, as the program that Stone led provides in Iraq. And militant prisoners of all nationalities and ideological strains—from Wahhabi-oriented Yemenis to hard-core Pakistani Taliban—are housed together at Gitmo and hence have ample opportunity to reinforce militant religious doctrines. Without rehabilitation, Stone worries, Gitmo’s concentration on simply “humane custody and care” may not be enough to overcome radicalism.
Gitmo’s detainees are permitted between two and 20 hours of recreational activity per day—soccer, volleyball, basketball, foosball, ping-pong, aerobic exercise on machines, and gardening. Rec time depends not on what detainees may have allegedly done to have been sent here, but on their degree of compliance with Gitmo’s rules. As a result, Colonel Vargo says, most of the “compliant”—about 30 percent of the detainees—spend only four hours a day in their dorm-style communal housing. Those deemed less compliant reside in a maximum-security facility up to 20 hours a day. “Noncompliant” detainees are confined to individual cells, about ten feet long by eight feet wide, for 22 hours a day, but still have two hours of daily recreation. That’s an hour more than most civilian prisoners get in American maximum-security prisons, officers point out—but then American civilian prisoners have been tried and convicted of crimes.
This is the real problem with Gitmo—the fact that most of the detainees have not yet been charged with terrorism or any other crime. “So what if they have satellite TV!” says Karen Greenberg, author of The Least Worst Place, about Gitmo’s first 100 days. “Just charge them, try them and put them away, or release them,” she adds, noting that despite all the time, money, and effort spent on Gitmo, only three detainees have been convicted—“hardly a record of judicial success.”
H. Candace Gorman, who is representing two detainees, challenges the Pentagon’s rosy portrait of Gitmo—one, she claims, was held for years in what any layman would call solitary confinement and had hepatitis B, tuberculosis, and untreated liver problems (Gitmo spokesmen say his ailments have been treated). But more disturbing, she tells me, is the violation of their human and civil rights by the absence of independent judicial review of their detention. Calling Guantánamo’s two internal reviews “kangaroo courts,” she argues that both—Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the annual Administrative Review Boards—rely on hearsay evidence and information acquired though coercion. And detainees are allowed to see no evidence against them deemed “secret.” Gitmo officers counter that these “kangaroo courts” have nonetheless already freed over 500 detainees.
While detention conditions have improved, Gorman says, ending the detainees’ legal limbo is far more important than changing where they are detained: “What we’re looking for is some justice for these men, not a new prison.” But President Obama seems to feel no urgency about that. The task force he created to consider the detention process has had its deadline extended as the complexity of the issues involved sinks in.
And there is little difference between Obama and his predecessor on some key civil-liberties issues. Jonathan Hafetz of the ACLU complains that Obama still defends the Bush idea that the “terrorism battlefield is unlimited, and hence that people can be picked up and held indefinitely anywhere, anyplace, and anytime.” Not only has Obama embraced George W. Bush’s notion of military commissions to try some detainees, with ostensibly bolstered rights for the defendants; he has also endorsed Bush’s position on “renditions” to countries with suspect human-rights records.
And he agrees with Bush on preventive detention for a so-called “fifth category” of detainee: captives who supposedly cannot be prosecuted by a civilian court or even by a military commission because of torture-tainted evidence or the need to protect intelligence sources and methods, but who “pose a clear danger to the American people,” as Obama puts it, and may be too dangerous to release. It is unclear how many detainees fall into this category. In April, defense secretary Robert Gates estimated their numbers at Gitmo between 50 and 100; in July, Assistant Attorney General David Kris told Congress that though half of the Gitmo detainees’ cases had been reviewed, none fell into the “fifth category.” By mid-September, after all the cases had gotten an initial review, at least 100 detainees were being examined a second time for potential inclusion in the “can’t transfer or prosecute” category.
While the administration ponders the detainees’ legal fate, it seems pointless and even counterproductive to spend more money and energy moving them to “Gitmo North”—maximum-security prisons in the United States where they may be far more harshly treated. Though four to six attacks on Gitmo’s guards take place each week—suggesting that detainees may not appreciate their art classes that much—Lieutenant Commander Brook DeWalt, the joint task force’s director of public affairs, says that the military guards are taught never to respond to provocations, even the “cocktails” of excrement that detainees hurl at them. Soldiers are also trained to return quickly to their posts. Would even veteran civilian guards react as stoically to such abuse? “If the detainees are transferred to a maximum-security prison in the U.S., they’ll wish they were back at Gitmo,” says Brigadier General Thomas L. Hemingway, the former legal advisor in the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions.
Officials also stress the continuing intelligence value of the 60 to 70 interrogations a week conducted at Gitmo. Over the years, 46,000 such interrogations have produced an estimated 6,000 reports. At one time, intelligence officials say, some 37 different al-Qaida-related groups were represented in the camp, and there is still an active al-Qaida cell here. Some 60 current or former detainees had residences in the U.S., relatives here, or other direct ties.
Representative Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, supports the Senate’s refusal to authorize $80 million that the Obama administration requested to close Gitmo or the use of any funds to release or transfer prisoners to the United States. Hoekstra says that the military estimates that it will cost over $100 million to rehab the soon-to-be closed maximum security prison at Standish, Michigan or the army base at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Given the $185 million already invested in Gitmo and its $120 million annual operating budget, he says, closing Gitmo now would be “an utter waste of taxpayer money.”
It’s time for the Obama administration to acknowledge that Gitmo, or another center like it, will be needed as long as the War on Terror—no matter what our commander-in-chief calls it—endures. As a result, we will need to detain foreign fighters who under national and international law can be held without charge until the “end of hostilities,” which in this case means indefinitely. But to ensure that such places do not become legal black holes, detainees—whether we call them prisoners of war, enemy combatants, or “enemy criminals,” as lawyer Noah Feldman once suggested—should be assured of some kind of periodic, independent review of the allegations against them. As civilian detainees or prisoners of an unconventional war in which the battlefield can be anywhere or everywhere, they should have not only decent physical treatment, but also some legal right to challenge their detention in a way that does not jeopardize intelligence sources and methods.
Several legal experts, among them Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, have proposed legal compromises that would authorize preventive detention for terrorism suspects like many of those at Gitmo. Such detention schemes, with bolstered rights for detainees and a guaranteed, periodic impartial review of the intelligence information or actions that led to their detention, may not be perfect. But they may be the most effective way to protect American values while we continue fighting a war that we cannot afford to abandon.