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Reporter Gets Firsthand Look at Controversial Guantanamo Detention Center

  • Gil Halsted

A new Pentagon report released this week says there is no evidence that terrorist detainees at Guantanamo are being mistreated. But the fate of the more than 200 men held at the detention centers is still up in the air. President Barack Obama has ordered Guantanamo closed by the end of the year. During a visit there in February, reporter Gil Halsted found that for the military guards and officials in charge of the camps, day-to-day life behind the razor wire is still business as usual.

Standing on the side of the road across from Camp Delta, with the sun in your face, birds chirping and military trucks and vans rolling by every few minutes, it's easy to forget that just across the street, behind the chain-link fence topped with coiled razor wire, there are dozens of suspected terrorists. Some of them have been designated enemy combatants by the U.S. government, and all of them, by order of President Obama, will be moved somewhere else within the next year.

For now they are here, and the Wisconsin National Guard is tasked with helping the media tell the story of how they are being treated.

'Safe, humane, transparent'

Sitting at a desk in a small office just down the road from the camps, Staff Sergeant Emily Russel speaks proudly of her mission with the Joint Task Force that operates the seven camps that make up the controversial facility.

"The Joint Task Force isn't the big, bad machine that it's made out to be so often, but rather individuals who are working so hard, in a safe and humane, transparent and legal manner, to take care of people who ultimately did some really bad things," she explains.

Russel sees her mission not as telling the detainees' stories of imprisonment, but instead, the stories of the guards who watch them.

"They're here to do a job that they may or not believe in, but they do it because we all took the same oath and pledged to our country that we would do this."

Touring a controversial facility

The mantra of "safe, humane and transparent care for the detainees" is one that reporters hear over and over during the official Guantanamo tours they're taken on. And considering how closely monitored the tours are, it's a hard message to disprove.

My guide at Camp 5 unlocks the door and leads me into what looks like a typical high-security prison in the United States. He explains that it is a prefabricated facility modeled on one in Terra Haute, Indiana.

"They basically put it on a barge, set it down, put concertina wire and concrete all around it, and there you have Camp 5," he says.

It can house up to 100 men.

Then I was led outdoors, where several fenced-in pens with exercise equipment function as recreation space for detainees.

It was then I got the only hint of possible mistreatment here. Detainees in the nearby cell block began shouting and pounding on the narrow glass windows that looked out on the yard. It was hard to hear the words clearly, but it sounded like they were saying "We want our rights" and "Tell the world about our situation here."

Next door to Camp 5 is Camp 6, a $37-million facility built in 2006. One of the five daily Muslim prayer sessions was going on during my tour there, so my guide, Lieutenant Jeff Harris, cautioned me to speak softly. In the empty recreation yard, he described what normally goes on when the detainees are let out of their cells.

"So they can come out here and play soccer and pray and eat."

He indicated the arrows painted on the ground here and in each cell, explaining that they point toward Mecca.

Joint Task Force commander denies allegations of mistreatment

The following day, in an interview with the Joint Task Force commander, Rear Admiral David Thomas, I pressed him on living conditions for the 242 detainees still held here. I asked specifically about the interrogation technique known as waterboarding.

"Unequivocally," he told me, "no one was ever waterboarded in Guantanamo. That's a fact."

But just a few minutes later, Thomas said this: "I am not really quite sure what waterboarding is, to be honest, what it encompasses. I haven't read much about it. I've heard the term."

Human rights groups like Amnesty International take issue with Thomas' claims. A group of attorneys that represents the detainees released a report February 23rd about conditions at Guantanamo. It says most detainees are being held in solitary confinement and the isolation many endure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Soldier worries about potentially dangerous detainees

But for National Guard members who lead the media tours here, there are other concerns. Specialist Cody Black of Wisconsin says a detainee spit on him during one tour. That he accepts as just part of the job, but he is worried about the reports that some detainees who've been released have rejoined al Qaeda and launched attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

"There could be an instance where I'm that guy on that convoy, or a friend or family member is on that convoy, and a particular detainee went back to battlefield and produced an IED. I guess it's just one of those things that you have no control over," he concludes.

For now at least, the U.S. military has tight control over the detainees still in Guantanamo, but soon as many as 60 of them may be released for lack of evidence linking them to terrorism.