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Security Tight at Guantanamo Bay - 2002-01-29

Security is a major concern at Camp X-Ray, the name of the temporary detention facility for al-Qaida and Taleban captives held at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

It is a long way from Kandahar to Camp X-Ray - about 16,000 kilometers. But the 158 Taleban and al-Qaida detainees being called to prayer inside the razor-wire compound are not even told they are in Cuba, part of an intentional effort to keep them in the dark to prevent them from thinking about escape.

It is also why they are blindfolded as they make the trip from the planes that bring them from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, and are then taken for a bus and ferry ride across the bay to Camp X-Ray.

Marine Brigadier General Mike Lehnert, the commander of the unit in charge of the Camp, spoke to reporters Sunday during a ferry ride duplicating the detainees' journey. He declined to tell reporters about all the security measures, but he says it is multi-layered and extensive.

"The boat that you see out there obviously is a small part of that. That is a Coast Guard [Port Security Unit]," General Lehnert said. "It has 50-calibre machine guns, 7.62 machine guns and all the small arms that would normally be associated with it. They are a superb addition to the normal complement of security that we get. In addition, a helicopter hovers overhead throughout the journey as the detainees pass along roads that take them through military facilities, a shopping area complete with a MacDonald's restaurant, as well as recreation areas and housing complexes."

Army Lieutenant Colonel Bill Costello is a spokesman at Camp X-Ray. He says keeping the detainees blindfolded during the trip is not mean-spirited, but a legitimate security precaution.

"Guantanamo Bay is a very small Naval base," he said. "There are permanent party folks here, there are family members and now there is a maximum-security prison, a temporary maximum-security prison. And there are certain considerations that you want to take place for security reasons that you do not want the detainees to know where they are in relation to other aspects of the camp. As we are standing here, we can not see water, but we know we are on an island so we do not want the detainees to know how close they are to the water. It is a consideration as are the other considerations of where the general population of Guantanamo Bay is and where it is not."

Colonel Costello says so far there have been no major security breaches involving the detainees, whose compound is closely watched around the clock by armed guards.

But back at the Pentagon, officials remain wary of what the detainees might do. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem makes clear they are dangerous, even though in most cases their exact identities remain unknown.

"Since being under detention, some have lied, some have changed their stories, some have tried to attack our people," he said. "It would appear, as you have seen yesterday [Sunday], that they are working to organize an organization down there, probably for no good. They have made death threats against all Americans and those including their captors. So these are not unknowns in the sense that they are bad guys. They are the worst of the worst. And if let out on the street they will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others."

For the moment, no more detainees are being sent from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, a pause designed to let work crews build more permanent cells than the open-air facility now in use.

As for the 158 detainees there, whatever they might be thinking or planning, officials say they are going nowhere for the time being.