News / USA

10 Years After 9/11 Guantanamo Still Open, Still Controversial

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba became a prison for suspects captured in America’s war on terror.

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Meredith Buel


Life at Guantanamo (*Don't miss our interactive feature )

The young guard squints into the blazing sun that beats down on the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.  Around him lines of chain link fence stretch out to a view of the blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea.

A little beyond the detention center are small hills, some hard-scrabble grass, cactus, and rocks - a stark, almost desert-like environment. Closer in, are the newer, almost sterile detention camps, with looming guard towers, and seemingly endless layers of razor wire. Large iguanas and banana rats scurry around the sprawling naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba.

This is the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Detention Center today, a place that gained notoriety after 2002 when images of shackled detainees in orange jumpsuits captured in America’s war on terror hit the front pages. Quickly, human rights groups began questioning the interrogation techniques being used here.

But today, guard Daniel Snell, a Navy Master-at-Arms, takes pride in his job.  “For me,” he says, “it is a sense of duty, honor.”

Camp X-Ray, where detainees were held in open-air cages in the tension-filled months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, has long since closed. Grass is growing through the buildings, parts of it have collapsed and the old guard tower is leaning over.  

Employees

New detention camps have been built, with air conditioning, medical facilities, a library, a communal center, and art classes. But those working here understand they are in a place that generated hostility around the world and is still controversial.

“We maintain the highest standards of conduct with our guards,” says Navy Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson, the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.  “We hold ourselves up as a model of professionalism for detention operations.”

But critics of the decision by then President George W. Bush to send detainees to Guantanamo, where most have been held without trial, say the move was “catastrophic.”

“It caused incalculable damage to this country’s reputation around the world,” says Eugene Fidell, a lecturer on military law at Yale University.

Of the nearly 780 detainees that were brought to Guantanamo over the past decade, about 600 have since been returned to their home countries or elsewhere.

Detainees

According to a 2010 report by the Guantanamo Review Task Force, nearly 50 of the current detainees are “too dangerous to transfer, but not feasible for prosecution.”

Under authorization from the U.S. Congress, these detainees may be held indefinitely, although they can challenge their status in court.

The most dangerous detainees are held in maximum security facilities at Guantanamo. They spend 20 hours a day in a cell by themselves. When they leave their cells to watch television or read, they are shackled.

Most of the others are held in a medium security prison, where they have to be in their cells four hours a night. They are free to walk around the cell blocks and can meet in common areas to read, eat and pray. Meals and magazines are brought to them.

Interaction with guards is at a minimum, and face-to-face contact with people in the outside world is almost non-existent. Photographers can only film through double-paned dark-tinted glass and reporters are not allowed to talk to any detainee.

Top Secret

There is one camp at Guantanamo Bay that is so protected its very location is top secret. Camp Seven is believed to hold the suspects behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but no-one wants to discuss it.

“Well, I can’t talk too much about Camp Seven at all for national security reasons,” says Donnie Thomas, the Army colonel in charge of the Joint Detention Group.

Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signed executive orders he hoped would shut down the Guantanamo detention sites within one year. But Congress blocked plans to move detainees to the United States and prosecute them in federal court.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama cleared the way for military trials to resume at Camp Justice, part of the Guantanamo Bay complex, and signed another executive order creating an indefinite detention system. There are periodic reviews to decide a detainee’s status.

Nearly 10 years after the first detainees were brought here, as the guards walk in the Caribbean sun past layers of razor wire, guard towers and reinforced cell blocks, there is no evidence this controversial site will close anytime soon.

* Don't miss our interactive feature on Guantanamo

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