An inside peek at Guantanamo's camps and court
By Tom Vanden Brook | USA Today | Published: June 21, 2014
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba — This is the end of the road in the War on Terrorism.
Razor-ribbon-bedecked prison camps hold 149 detainees suspected of war crimes. All but 15 — the so-called "high-value" suspects — live and eat and sleep in Camps Five and Six, which could pass for prisons in the United States. That's by design. They were built in bits in America, shipped to the shores of Cuba and assembled "like Lego blocks," an officer here says.
A few miles away, over cactus-studded hills and dry creek beds sits Court Room II, where hearings for the 9/11 suspects, including alleged attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, inched forward this week with no trial date in sight.
More than a decade — and $5 billion — later, here's the GTMO scorecard: eight convictions, one of them overturned by a civilian court; six others face trial; and 779 detainees have been transferred to other countries, including the five Taliban members recently traded for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
The Pentagon this week afforded an inside glimpse of the camps and the court. For some detainees, days are filled with reading and praying, painting and, frankly, aging. Others, however, mount hunger strikes and strike out at guards.
"These people are still in the fight," says a military nurse, who can't be named because the identities of most people stationed at Guantanamo are not allowed to be named publicly.
President Obama has vowed to close the prison camps, and Attorney General Eric Holder has said he can try the suspects in federal court. Yet the prisons and courtroom at GTMO, the military abbreviation for the base, have rock-solid construction that suggests something permanent.. And they may have to be: There is no will in Congress to shutter them. Indeed, Republicans this week called for Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the suspect in the deadly attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, snatched by U.S. special operators in Libya, to be held at Guantanamo for questioning.
Meanwhile, a hearing this week for KSM and the four other 9/11 suspects inched them toward trial. The issue on the docket this week: a defense request for the prosecution to reveal what it knows about FBI investigations into defense teams. Judge James Pohl is expected to rule on the request by August.
The camps and courts are a far cry from the makeshift, open-air prison that sprung up in 2002 to hold the first detainees from battlefields in Afghanistan. Weeds choke the grounds, and the sun has bleached the plywood facades of the interrogation shacks. A federal court order prevents the government from bulldozing it.
The price tag for building, housing and trying the detainees since 2002: $5 billion and counting. For 2015, there's another $149 million budgeted for operations here, and more is expected to be included in the overseas war budget, according to Navy Cmdr. William Urban, a Pentagon spokesman.
There are the new prisons, hospital facilities and courtroom. The traveling band of lawyers, court observers from non-governmental organizations and reporters packed a C-17 cargo plane from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for the three-hour trip.
Complaints of detainee abuse by guards — recall the furor over shackled detainees in orange jumpsuits in 2002, and waterboarding of KSM — continue to echo today.
James Harrington, the lawyer for 9/11 suspect Ramzi bin al-Shibh, contended in court this week that his client had been mocked by his guards and denied sleep at Camp 7, the prison for the five accused in the terror attacks.
"It amounts to torture," Harrington told the military judge.
On Thursday, Rear Adm. Richard Butler, with the shimmering Caribbean Sea at his back, dismissed those complaints with a wave of his hand. An iguana skittered past his podium and over a berm.
"No," Butler said. "None of those things are happening."
Inside Camp Five, about 70 detainees — most of them wearing the orange jumpsuits of the "non-compliant" — are held. Sound-absorbing material on the ceiling of a cell block is stained with feces. Detainees fling cocktails of feces, urine, blood and vomit at guards, an attack that happens weekly and is euphemistically referred to as "spraying."
For security reasons, the military requires reporters to submit their photos for review, obscuring faces and withholding all names.
There are other forms of resistance.
Some detainees refuse to eat (the military refuses to say how many). For them, there is "enteral feeding." Medical personnel strap them to a chair and insert a tube through their noses into their stomachs to feed them a liquid diet. Most of them prefer olive oil to lubricate their nostrils, says a doctor in charge.
"It's a regular part of our life, unfortunately," the doctor said.
For compliant detainees, there is greater freedom. They get to spend four hours a day outside of their 96-square foot cells, which are "virtually indestructible," according to a commander of the guards.
They paint landscapes, take computer classes, and work out on treadmills and elliptical machines. The day we were there, one detainee watched television (192 channels), the audio piped in his native language through headphones. When he wanted to speak with guards, they donned plastic visors to ward off a potential "splashing."
A library holds more than 19,000 titles. Among them: the works of Charles Dickens and the westerns of Louis L'Amour; five volumes of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope; and one edition of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Items are screened for inciting extremism, military and technical knowledge and "incitement."
Until December, the prison had three subscriptions to USA TODAY. That's when the last three Uighur Muslim detainees were transferred to Slovakia. No word on what they're reading there.
Twelve years after the first detainees arrived, they've begun to show their age. They range from their 30s to their mid-60s.
Heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are increasingly common among this aging prison population, says Butler, the commander.
Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, arraigned this week for allegedly orchestrating attacks on U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, has a bad back that requires physical therapy, says his lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Chris Callen. He has a dental bridge that needs work, too.
Al-Hadi is 53, and has been here since 2007.
For those who make it to court, another prison cell awaits. At $40,000 each, the portable cells hold prisoners before sessions begin, or, if they aren't required in court, to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television.
Inside is a bench with a cushion to sleep on, a toilet, phone and an arrow painted on the floor pointing toward Mecca.
The concrete walkway to the courtroom is shrouded in black mesh — a countermeasure should a sniper decide to take a shot at an inmate. Before he reaches court, he first must sit on the BOSS, the Body Orifice Security Scanner, billed as a "non-intrusive" device that detects metal hidden in body cavities.
The BOSS will sit locked in a shed for more than a month. KSM and the other 9/11 suspects aren't scheduled to appear in court again until the week of Aug. 11.
Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, acknowledged that the pace of action in the court room can be difficult, especially for victims' families. But he vowed to see the cases through.
"I certainly understand the families of those killed on 9/11 — their frustration and their anxiety — our hearts got out to them," Martins said this week. "But all of us who are involved in this case understood that this is a marathon."