Guantánamo Bay: the inside story

Six months ago this week President Obama, on his second day in office, promised to close the Guantánamo detention camp within a year, and to undo the secretive and coercive detention and interrogation policies of George W. Bush. But has Obama been as good as his word?

I went to Guantánamo last month to see for myself what difference, if any, Obama’s election had made. My trip was surreal from start to end. I was in line for the rotating junket to the island, and had been given a date by a nervous-sounding and very young Lieutenant Cody Starken. I signed papers that committed me to not reporting classified information – on pain of prosecution. Then I got on a tiny aircraft – unmarked on any announcement board – out of Fort Lauderdale airport.

On the aircraft were bland-looking contractors, male and female, who deflected my small talk, and two young staffers from the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the organisation representing the detainees when no one else would touch the work, and which now co-ordinates hundreds of lawyers from across the country doing so: Pardis Kebriaei, a staff lawyer, and Jess Baen, a legal worker, tried to answer all my questions until my military handler determinedly parted us on our arrival. Lawyers are kept in a compound on one side of the military base at Guantánamo, journalists housed on the other side; they may never communicate with or run into one another. As a journalist, a handler sticks within 18in of you at all times, standing outside when you go to the bathroom and near by when you buy personal items at the commissary; your phone calls and e-mail are monitored.

Passport check was followed by our descent over the glittering curve of the sea on to the edge of Cuba, which was studded with lights. A tired, courtly Navy media specialist, MC1 Mapp, whisked me through security checks; I took in the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and languid crowds of Filipino and Jamaican contractors. We stepped into a ferry; then a young, chipper Sergeant Hillegass – in his other life, a 911 dispatcher – met us in a van and drove us to a street of identical townhouses. I was left alone in the house.

My mobile phone could not call out directly, my BlackBerry did not work, there was no internet access for my computer. My press kit had a scene of a lush sunset on the cover, and a speedboat.

Breakfast – with a TV crew from Poland and another from Russia, and our military handlers – was at a lively mess hall that looked like something out of summer camp, except that all the tired, strapping young people were in pressed fatigues. Then two African American soldiers, Petty Officer Bennet, a genial woman in her thirties who wanted to be a graphic designer, and a charming man a bit older, Petty Officer Dwight, took us to our first stop, Camp X-Ray.

As the military handlers made pleasant jokes about the heat, I took in a low-tech vision of Hell. This was the site of the first scenes from Guantánamo, where men sweltered in kennel-like cages. These were the cages themselves: about 50, each about 8ftx12ft, an aisle down the centre for guards to move in, a slab of corrugated iron on top of each cell, and a pipe with a funnel at groin level, in which to urinate; open to the elements; no walls, no true shade. Concrete floors. There had been buckets for defaecation, MC1 Dwight told us; but the prisoners had thrown the faeces at the guards. There was a communal shower, now crumbling – but the prisoners had not liked to shower in groups, naked.

The scene was being reclaimed by nature: vines and brambles were swallowing the wire, twisting around the doors. At 10am the humidity was so intense that sweat was pouring down our faces. The temperature was close to 40C. I went into a cell; grinding heat, drenching humidity, pure exposure to the sun. It was as if you were being cooked in a man-sized convection oven. “Look out!” shouted Petty Officer Dwight. “Banana rats!”

I looked up and shrieked, staggering to my feet: climbing across the wire walls and on to the roof of the cell was a 40lb rodent, with a long wiry tail, the size of a bulldog. Another one scurried along the base of the wall, a baby on its back; a third made itself at home in the undergrowth of the neighbouring cell – big, grotesque creatures with no fear. I imagined what it must have been like to try to sleep in that black heat, these animals slipping in and out of the cages with their great claws and teeth.

Behind the cages was the interrogation hut – a plywood shack painted with a red cross. A one-man cage stood near by. From Human Rights Watch reports and documents in Michael Ratner’s book Guantánamo: What the World Should Know, I knew that this was the notorious isolation cell. Prisoners in a detention camp are so cowed by the sight of the isolation cell and those held in it that they become compliant, since isolation is far more damaging psychologically to many prisoners than anything else.

“This is the isolation cell?” I asked Petty Officer Dwight. “Yes,” he said. Then he advised us that the detainees themselves had requested it. “They asked that other detainees who were disruptive and disturbing them be taken here for a ‘time out’. This was a ‘time-out’ area … if someone was to act up and they needed a ‘time-out’.”

It was the first of many times I would look at PO Dwight – a decent guy whose true passion was hairstyling – and wonder if he believed what he had been trained to say. But he gave this, and other “facts”, with a kind of innocence. He took us into the interrogation rooms. About 25 chairs were stacked in a corner – unusual chairs for a military setting. The seats were padded; the structure itself was made of a bamboo material; and, oddest of all, each of the arms of the chairs curled into an elaborate spiral. I leant in more closely: on each chair’s arms was a clear mark from what appeared to have been several layers of gaffer tape. I looked at the legs of the chairs, where a prisoner’s ankles would be: the same apparent gaffer-tape marks.

I went into the interrogation room. A table, two chairs. Gaffer tape remained in long strips on the plywood walls, not holding anything together, but positioned near by like an office supply; a pile of wadded-up grey gaffer tape remained on the floor.

PO Dwight reminded us of the scenes we had witnessed on TV of prisoners at Camp X-Ray being transported restrained, lying on stretchers – though no one had asked about it; the stretchers were, he said, for the wellbeing of the prisoners; to move them more easily. It was not, he was keen to assure us, that they had been sick, or hurt.

On to lunch at the mess hall. After lunch, we were taken on a bizarre tour of a baking facility, where an exuberant, smiling South Korean woman in a hairnet (“I love food service! I love my job!”) showed off trays of hot, fragrant buns and baklava. We heard for the third or fourth time from our military handlers that they, too, wished that they could have that delicious baklava, but that it was reserved for the prisoners’ discerning palates.

The food-service employee displayed a set table of detainees’ actual meals – meat, rice, sauce, salad, and those tasty buns and pastries. She pressed us to try them: the ground meat was spiced in a “culturally appropriate” Middle Eastern style and was not bad. Then she showed off a dozen fridges filled with fresh produce – strawberries, watermelon, maple syrup.

She politely refused to answer questions about what her role was, or who employed her. Private-sector contractors take care of the manual, building, cleaning and service work: to a casual observer, it is they, and not the military, who run Gauntánamo. Military men and women have, if minimally, to answer reporters’ questions; contractors do not even have to identify themselves. Contractors work in medical facilities; clear journalists’ video; deal with classified material; but they are answerable only to their employers. Their houses are far more luxurious, on the island, than are those of the military.

Military spokespeople must give answers, but the answers are maddeningly evasive. Can detainees get mail from their loved ones? I asked often. What if someone dies of natural causes, who notifies the family? If a loved one calls, can prisoners take the call? What happens to care packages from loved ones? What if a spouse asks to visit? Can I see the letter that tells her that she can’t? I put these questions “in writing” and asked them at least five times up the chain of command, and followed up multiple times on my return. Most of my questions were met – from higher-level “media specialists” such as Lieutenant-Commander Brook DeWalt or Major Haynie – with non-answers. “I don’t know, but I can ask for you.” “That is above my pay grade.”

The detainee handlers and the lawyers for detainees often flatly contradict each other. The handlers and my press kit claim that “Detainees get a call every couple of months” or quarterly, and that “they make phone calls on a regular basis – every few weeks”. But Kebriaei says that her clients can make calls “every six months if they are lucky”. “Detainees get mail all the time,” the handlers claim. “Care packages are destroyed,” says Kebriaei, who described the security-driven destruction of the orthopaedic shoes that her elderly client needed for his swollen feet.

And so, on we went in the afternoon, to Camps 5 and 6 – hulking state-of-the-art maximum-security prison edifices. But with a difference, as a smiling nameless blonde soldier said to us (name tags are stripped from uniforms when soldiers are inside the detention centres – the process is called “sterilising” – and the prisoners themselves are addressed by number, never by name). These soldiers looked as if they had been chosen from the coolest fraternity and sorority on campus. They were unusually physically attractive. Our guide, Lieutenant Fulghum, was a bright, charming Irishman with a twinkle in his eye and killer abs. When he greeted the twentysomething blonde soldier with the phrase, “Honour bound, Ma’am”, it was as good as a wink. (“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” is the motto). “Honour bound, Lieutenant,” she smiled back.

As we moved down the corridor the weird intimacy of the place – which had, according to many detainees and reports such as Broken Laws, Broken Lives, a study by Physicians for Human Rights, been the scene of so much abuse – hit me.

There in front of me was a shower stall fully fronted with glass, facing into a public central hallway where military men and women passed regularly. It forced male prisoners daily into a state of public nudity, which is illegal according to US and international law.

The guards showed us a demonstration cell: it was spotless. Hooks folded down so that no one could hang himself; there was a toilet in a corner, a plastic wedge of a bed, and high-tech mechanical doors that shut of their own accord. No sun, no sightlines, no natural light. I noted the guards’ use of facemasks. “Facemasks are to help protect soldiers,” our tour guide said. “We do have assaults – spitting, throwing faeces and urine.”

Another diorama was set up in another cell, of “comfort items”. It looked unchanged from photos of Guantánamo that I had seen in the Bush era. Here was a Koran; toiletries; a padded mattress the thickness of a yoga mat, for those who “co-operated”; a thinner mattress, fewer “comforts”, for those who did not.

Opposite this room was yet another cell, which the military handlers were most proud of. “The TV room is a big change,” one of the handlers said. There was a big blue squishy sofa facing a nice big flat-screen TV. We were told that the detainees get to watch TV three hours a day; that their favourite TV show is The Deadliest Catch, about fishing; and that they also love Harry Potter. There was a tray table where prisoners could eat baklava while watching Harry Potter – and there, at the base of the sofa, were leg shackles, bolted to the concrete floor.

At the end of the hall I opened a door. Before me was an unused cell, packed halfway to the ceiling with hundreds of cans of Ensure, the liquid nutrient used in force-feeding. (Jen Nessel, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, had told me that 24 detainees were being force-fed daily, in restraining chairs, because they were on hunger strike.) Lieutenant Fulghum came to get me, annoyed. “No one is supposed to go this far down the hall,” he snapped. I asked if anybody was on hunger strike. “We are not allowed to say. The medical staff handles that,” Lieutenant Fulghum said.

We were taken outside to Camp 6: there was a modest-sized recreation area surrounded by wire; and there they were, the causal heart of the whole monster. The detainees – Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi and Yemeni men in their twenties, thirties and forties, wearing white T-shirts and khaki shorts – milled about; one or two threw a basketball out of range. The journalists were moved back down the hallway before they could see us, as if we were on safari. I asked if I could speak to them. My handler smiled. “No way.”

Our handlers took us out of the first structure to the grassy area between the buildings. In the second building, our handlers promised, we would see – since Obama had taken office – art classes; English classes. A library.

Outside, all around us, we saw a facility – one scheduled to be closed by December 2009 – under massive new construction: dozens of labourers were digging, surrounded by the grinding noise of building. A facility that Congress thinks it is discussing the “how” of closing – and that the President has claimed for six months is already slated for closure – was metastasising under our very eyes. When I asked about this I was told that the money had been allocated already and so it would be more expensive to stop construction than to keep it going. Through that open causeway of construction, the detainees in their central cage caught sight of us.

A sharp, sudden roar arose from the knot of men who spotted us. One of the prisoners looked straight at me and, his face twisted with an emotion that I could not read, screamed: “Go! Go!

“Why are they saying ‘Go?’” I asked.

The handler looked at me. The Muslim men in the cage were being managed by guards who were mostly African American, and who shouted in colloquial English to get their attention: “Yo! 289! Stop that!” “They learn English from the guards,” he explained. “They aren’t saying ‘Go’.”

What they had screamed out to us – across the greatest possible distance – was: “Yo!”

After these camps, our handlers showed us Camp 4, part of Camp Delta, used to house “more compliant” detainees. A dozen prisoners milled about in a bigger central space (“We call this ‘The Patio’ or ‘The Lanai’,” our handler said; the new talking points also refer to communal meals as “feast days”.) This cage, too, was surrounded by mesh and guards.

I asked a guard if he had formed any personal opinions about the men he was guarding. He paused for a moment. “They don’t complain. They are needy,” he said. I asked what he meant. “Emotionally needy,” he said. “It comes out as asking for things all the time – a certain brand of shampoo, extra blankets … it is a kind of dependency.” The guard was suddenly whisked away. We were then taken to a medical bay. In the white-on-white bay was a military nurse – her name removed from her uniform; she refused to identify herself. And a psychologist stood ready to brief us, next to yet another diorama. Before us was a display of Ensure fanned out across a medical tray table. The nurse, a pleasant, pretty white middle-aged woman with a soft hairstyle and a rueful smile, gestured at the display like a car showroom model. She gave us a rundown of how they feed the prisoners who were on hunger strike.

The nurse confirmed that some detainees were on hunger strike and said that they were fed forcibly “when they refuse to take feeding fluids”. But she didn’t call it force-feeding: “We call it ‘enteral feeding’,” she corrected me. “It goes down the nose and into the stomach.The patients are given a variety of flavours,” she said, going back to her infomercial-style presentation and gesturing at the cartons. “Strawberry, French vanilla, butter pecan – they have a choice. Our admiral did this for a week and he gained four pounds,” she said fondly.

I turned to the psychologist, a dark-haired man in his late forties, heavily muscled, with the same featureless area on his chest where name tags ordinarily are. He, too, refused to give me his name when I asked. I asked him what happens if a detainee is depressed. “We will go see them. They can request the Behavioural Health Unit.” He said that they get “talk therapy” if they need it. “I can empathise,” he said. “I see it as being very similar to people who are detained in any correctional facility.”

I pointed out to the man that perhaps his patients were “depressed and anxious” because of what they had suffered in Guantánamo. (It is now well documented that detainees were subjected to “stress positions”, sleep deprivation, waterboarding and extremes of hot and cold. But for those working at Guantánamo, the talking points on torture seem to be that “abuse may or may not have happened, there is no way to know”: A Department of Defence spokesman, Joe Della Vedova, had called the claim that prisoners had been tortured at Guantánamo, “a posture of the defence”; Petty Officer Dwight called it “a matter of opinion”. And Lieutenant-Commander DeWalt called it “an assertion” and “a point of view”.) I would subsequently discover that the day before I met the psychologist and the nurse, a detainee, Muhammad al-Hanashi, had died, in what the Joint Task Force Guantánamo press office reported as an “alleged suicide”. Six weeks later, that death still has not have been investigated by an independent body.

But Andrew Selsky, of Associated Press, interviewed Binyam Mohamed, a former prisoner who knew the young man; Mr Mohamed said that suicide was “totally out of character” for Mr al-Hanashi. He was, according to Mr Mohamed, a positive person who had been elected by the prisoners as their representative. Associated Press reported that on January 17, 2009, Mr alHanashi had been summoned to a meeting with Admiral David Thomas, Commander of JTF Guantánamo, and the head of the Guantánamo guard force; Mr al-Hanashi never returned to his cell, but was taken directly to the psychiatric ward. Elizabeth Gilson, a lawyer for a detainee who was also in the ward, knows more about what happened; but she can’t tell anyone; it is classified.

The JTF Guantánamo press release reporting the death would be terse; the details nonexistent; there would be little follow-up in the media – because there was nothing the Guantánamo press office would release that would give anything to go on. His body would, presumably, go somewhere – but Mr al-Hanashi himself would, during the days I was at Guantánamo, simply disappear.

here was a final stop: another trailer inside the same area as Camp Delta, where the Combat Status Review Board takes place. There were security cameras in the corners of the room covered with towels for, we were told, “classification reasons”. There Captain Dan Bauer, another handsome, dark-haired, pleasant man, explained the combat status review tribunal (CSRT) process. Twenty serious-looking high-ranking military men sat to our right watching his presentation to us. In the room was his desk: and two chairs facing it. I turned on my little Flip camera and started recording. Captain Bauer claimed in his talk that witnesses were brought in from outside“whenever reasonable”. I looked at the base of both chairs. Both chairs had shackles. The process had been “formed”, Captain Bauer explained, “to afford the detainees the opportunity to attend and provide witness statements that were relevant and readily available on behalf of their own defence”. The system, he repeated several times, sorts them into those who are “enemy combatants” and those who are “no longer enemy combatants”.

He explained that “about 520 detainees were designated as enemy combatants, the remaining 40 or so are no longer enemy combatants”. Why, I wondered, was there no category for “never been enemy combatants”? A Russian reporter with us asked if the detainees have access to telephones or the internet, so that they can communicate with people in their country, to get documents and witnesses.“No,” Captain Bauer said. “In that case what would happen is that there was something that – if there was a process by which if they felt made their case, then what the board would do is the Dept of Defence works with the Department of State to contact, er . . . the nations of detainees to try to make arrangements just to get whatever information – er, that they need.” He said that detainees are taken “in the heat of the battlefield” and that there they “put the pieces together”.

I asked if everyone in the room with the detainee was employed by the US Government. Captain Bauer confirmed that.

“As I understand the process,” the Polish reporter said, “it is the detainee alone against the US Government?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Captain Bauer replied.

I asked why there were two different chairs with shackles. Captain Bauer explained that if the detainee had another detainee as his witness, then he would be present. In sources provided by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the American Civil Liberties Union I had read that prisoners had been abused to provide false confessions implicating other prisoners, in just this setting, and that their “enemy combatant” status had been based on these false confessions. Testimony of witnesses who were not from within the prison system, so not subjected to coercion, was of course crucial for the review to be effective. Have there ever been any, or were any witnesses there, on the island right now?

“I can’t confirm whether there have or not.”

“Would you fly them here?”

“The Department of Defence, the Department of State, work with foreign agencies to make those arrangements.”

“Have they made those arrangements – ever?”

“Ummm … we afford the opportunity. Whether it’s been done or how often it’s been done, I don’t, I don’t know the answer.”

That afternoon we got to Guantánamo’s main street, which was like a main street anywhere in the US – McDonald’s, a Wal-Mart-style store: T-shirts for sale reading “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This”, “Guantánamo Resort and Spa” and “Guantáanamo, Pearl of the Antilles”. You could get postcards of the banana rats.

Dinner was more salad displays; a pasta fiesta; a make-your-own sundae bar. It was like a food court in a really good mall. I tried to watch the sunset, under the scrutiny of my handler.

t six the next morning we awoke, dressed and convened outside, but – something was wrong. Petty Officers Dwight and Bennet were looking sadly at a flat tyre on the white van in the driveway that was to transport us. I tried my computer in the backyard for the hell of it, and to my surprise found that I got a thin thread of access to the outside world. A friend in Egypt had sent me a bombshell news clipping about Mr al-Hashani’s alleged suicide. While we had been at the medical bay, the Guantánamo press office had been scrambling to word a bland press release. The whole world knew about this death.

Only we, the journalists actually present at the scene, had had no idea. Petty Officers Dwight and Bennet eventually got us on wheels – taking us through the chic, upscale neighbourhoods of the contractors, with their barbecues, playstructures and verandas, through the boxy, hut-like quarters of the enlisted men and women – and back to the site of the military commissions.

There a new set of handlers showed us another sterile portable cell where detainees conferred with their lawyers. I asked our guide if there was lawyer-client privilege, or was the cell under surveillance? “I can’t answer that,” the guide said. (The defence lawyer Wells Dixon said that he always assumed that his conversations with his client were being listened in to.) We were taken in to the state-of-the art “courtroom” itself, where the ill-starred military tribunals meet. It is unbelievably expensive-looking: rows of gleaming wooden tables for the lawyers of the detainees – and seats with shackles at the base for the detainees at the end of each table; a raised dais where the “panel” – about 20 members of the military – sits facing the tables; and a raised platform in the front of the room, where the “judge” sits in the middle and on one side sits the detainee and on the other, the witness for the defence. Two contractors showed me around. One, “Mo”, showed me how you can put a $5 note under a light on a desk and it shows up onscreen behind the judge’s chair much magnified. I looked up: “In God We Trust”, the motto read.

Then he showed me the stop-motion button system on the audio feed that means that a censor can redact any information that comes out that he wishes to cut – so the press in the galley area behind glass at the back of the room, and down in the hangar, will never know what was redacted. The button system is in the same area as the “witness chair”, which seemed odd to me.

I asked if the chair had ever been used.

“Well … no,” he said. Not to his knowledge. Then he showed me again with great pride the live feed that was hooked up directly into the “courtroom” that could “transmit witness testimony into the courtroom from anywhere in the world”.

“Has it ever been used to transmit actual witness testimony?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “But we have the capability.”

At the end of the trip, I asked Deputy Press Officer Major Haynie to respond to the statement that no witnesses had ever been called to the CSRT process. I did not get an answer. Five weeks later I asked the Pentagon spokesman Vedova for a response – no answer – and six weeks later I called Lieutenant-Commander DeWalt to confirm or deny that external witnesses had never been called to the CSRT process.

He said that the 9/11 families were coming down to witness motions at the military tribunals and they would be housed in townhouses or officers’ quarters. I asked if the families of defendants would be allowed to observe the motions as well. “I don’t believe there are defendants’ families on this visit.” I asked him if defendants’ families have ever been brought in. “Not to my knowledge,” he conceded. I asked DeWalt if, in the rebranded military commissions under Obama’s Administration, real witnesses will be flown in from outside the prison system. “It’s a fair question – I’ll get back to you,” he said. So far, he has not done so.

The next morning I was due to depart when word came that the one flight out was cancelled. Instead, I was to fly out on military transport. On the aircraft I chatted with those seated around me. To my right was a military doctor, who acknowledged that he had been flown to the island to attend to the post-mortem of the dead prisoner.

“Will there be an investigation?” I asked.

That was the investigation, he explained. When I later asked Lietenant-Commander DeWalt about the death of Mr al-Hanashi, he said that there was an ongoing investigation, and that he could not give “details of that situation – we are holding off on any speculation – because it would get in the way of investigators doing their job”.

Sitting behind the doctor on the aircraft was a genial young clergyman, Chaplain Mubarak, who turned out to be one of four Muslim chaplains in the Navy. He, too, had been flown in for the death – from Chicago. He had been tasked with “culturally sensitive” treatment of the corpse. He explained that in Islam only another Muslim could wash the dead man’s body. Had he been allowed to give spiritual support to Mr al-Hanashi’s fellow prisoners? No.

I made my way down the aisle to join another lawyer, whom I had met in the waiting room: George Clarke, a corporate lawyer with Miller and Chevalier, a big law firm in Washington. He works pro bono for his clients who are detainees. “I represent two of the 17 Uighurs that are still here. They were all cleared to go – by the Department of Defence, by the courts, by the military . . . innocent guys. But they have been here for seven years.”

To explain why the detainees are not permitted to speak to reporters, Clarke says, the Department of Defence is citing the Geneva Conventions. “Which is kind of interesting because their position has been that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to these guys. If the Geneva Conventions applied they would be able to have a canteen from which to buy things, tobacco that they could have, a right to organise themselves and have a representative.”

“Remember,” Clarke says, “for a lot of these guys, there’s no evidence. The military said that of the 240 guys left here maybe 80 will eventually be ‘tried’ in some form. What about the rest? A lot of these people have been held because they stayed at a guest house or they had some supposed connections or affiliations [with al-Qaeda]. ‘Connections’ are like … someone’s brother was a member. Or allegedly a member. The whole world has a misconception that these guys were picked up on the battlefield. And a whole lot of them were not.

“This country is based on the rule of law,” Clarke continued quietly. “If you truly have no reason to hold someone, you can’t hold them. National security cannot override freedom.

“At the end of the day our freedom is more important. If we lose our freedom – what are we trying to secure?”

What, indeed?

We landed, the lights of Washington now twinkling brightly below us, but the answer still unclear.