There has been renewed controversy during the past week about conditions at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. A panel of United Nations experts called for the facility to be closed. A former Defense Department lawyer said he had opposed abusive interrogations at Guantanamo three years ago. And on Thursday, a memo was made public indicating that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried and failed to stop military officers from using such tactics during the same period. U.S. officials say such practices were never authorized by official policy, and that abuses were stopped when senior officials learned about them. On a recent visit to Guantanamo, VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin found officials eager to make the point that whatever may have happened in the past, their approach now is different from what has been reported.
On the media tour of Guantanamo's newest climate-controlled detention facility called Camp Five, the sergeant in charge, who does not want his name published, opens a door at the end of a hallway lined with cells.
SERGEANT: "This is one of the interrogation rooms that we have here at Camp Five. Inside the small room are several hard chairs, a small table, a Middle Eastern carpet and a plush easy chair.
SERGEANT: "The detainee would be sat across from the interrogator. In this room, it happens to be this Lazy-Boy right here."
A Lazy-Boy is a brand of cushioned chair that reclines. This particular one is covered with a soft, velvet-like light blue fabric. The room could be a small den anywhere in America, except for the cinder block walls and the shackle on the floor where a prisoner's restraints can be attached. The sergeant is asked whether all the interrogation rooms have Lazy-Boy recliners for the detainees.
SERGEANT: "Each interrogation room is a little bit different in what is put in it, whether it's chairs or a couch or DVD player or television."
A DVD player? A television? It doesn't sound, or look, like a place where prisoners would be beaten, put in stress positions or subjected to other abuses, as has been charged by some detainees and former officials. But a senior military officer says the comfortable interrogation rooms are part of a plan.
COLONEL: "We find that the interrogators that have the best rapport and show the most respect to the folks they're working with will elicit the most information."
This U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel also does not want her name used. She is a psychologist who works as a consultant to the interrogation teams. And she says her main message to the interrogators is not to abuse, belittle or lie to the detainees, but rather to become their friends.
COLONEL: "We work with interrogators to elicit information, so whatever might be effective. And what we know works best here is building rapport. Oftentimes, when folks are starting out they need a little more coaching, a little more training on more effective ways to do that."
Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner says that was not always the case. He represents several detainees at Guantanamo, and visits them from time to time.
"My clients at Guantanamo have been there now for four years," he says. "And at the beginning, a number of them said that they were subjected to very harsh physical abuse. Several of them were beaten up when they first arrived at Guantanamo. Others were punched a lot during interrogation. That, I think, has ended long ago."
Mr. Wilner and other lawyers charge that some types of abuse continue, including painful medical procedures that they say helped convince many detainees to end their hunger strike in recent weeks, after several months of less painful force feeding.
But Mr. Wilner says the more flagrant types of abuse connected to interrogations ended about two years ago for two main reasons.
"It probably ended in part because of the revelations of Abu Ghraib," Mr. Wilner says. "I think it ended in part because in June, 2004 the Supreme Court said that Guantanamo was not a place beyond the law and that the courts could look at what was going on down there. And I think that some of the cloak over Guantanamo was taken away."
U.S. officials say there was never a policy of abuse, and that when it happened it was stopped as soon as senior officials became aware of it, and the perpetrators were punished. But this week U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that a memo he signed in December of 2002 allowing some pressure tactics in interrogations sparked concern among some department lawyers, one of whom recently retired and has gone public with his story.
"Within four, five, six weeks we heard that there was concern about that, in which case we stopped it immediately and then undertook an investigation and consulted with the people who were in the judge advocate (military lawyer) offices," Rumsfeld says. "In which case, then it was revised in some ways and sent back out.
Secretary Rumsfeld said he does not believe his original memo sent a signal to interrogators that abuse was allowed.
These days, relatively few of the nearly 500 detainees at Guantanamo are interrogated. Officials say the rest either had no useful information or have already told what they know. But the detention facility's commander, Major General Jay Hood, says some of the detainees were in key positions in terrorist organizations and still have useful information.
"There is hardly a week that goes by that we don't learn something about how members of terrorist organizations recruited, trained, transported,financed commanded and controlled their organization," he says.
And the general says the techniques the interrogators are using are working, helped perhaps by a breakdown in resistance over the years.
"In many cases, portions of the detainee population who were very resistant to interrogations for a significant period of time after their capture have, over time, begun to communicate with us," general Hood says. "The communications flow, I think, is more open and more clear now than it ever has been in the past."
U.S. officials say they will continue to keep detainees at Guantanamo as long as they provide useful information, and pose a potential threat to the United States and its allies. And they say they provide safe, humane detention. The detainees' lawyers dispute that, and say the detainees should have access to U.S. courts to seek their freedom. That debate will go on, and in the meantime, so will the interrogations, but apparently under different conditions than in the past.