THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
War Inside the Wire
You can handle the truth about Guantanamo Bay.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, September 16, 2006
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba--You might call Rear Adm. Harry Harris a jailer. As commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, a job he has held for six months, he is in charge of one of the world's best-known detention facilities. But if you call this place a prison, he will correct you.
"Prisons are about rehabilitation and punishment," Adm. Harris told me in a phone conversation last week, reiterating a point he had made a few days earlier in a briefing for visiting journalists here. "What we are about is keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield. . . . The enemy combatants that we have here were captured on the battlefield or running from the battlefield, and they were engaged in combat operations against Americans, and in many cases killed Americans. What we're trying to do here in Guantanamo is simply keep them off the battlefield, because we know that many of them would go back to the fight."
In fact, Adm. Harris says, many of them have kept fighting even while in captivity. They are carrying out coordinated actions with the apparent goals of disrupting the camp's operations, furthering anti-American propaganda, and wounding and intimidating the servicemen who guard them.
One such action unfolded on May 18. Early that Thursday morning, guards patrolling the high-security Camp 1 (one of five numbered detention areas, with a sixth under construction) found two detainees who had attempted suicide. "One was found unconscious," Adm. Harris recalls, "and then another one was found a little later, frothing at the mouth, if you will. It looked like . . . poisoning of some sort." Both survived, although one took seven days to regain consciousness, and the other took four days. Neither had a prescription for any drug, "so they had to get the meds from other detainees somehow."
To prevent more suicide attempts, "the detention group commander ordered a shakedown of all the cells. He was going through each of the cells looking for contraband, looking for pills. He found some, throughout the day. He found some hidden around the toilet area; he found some hidden in the bindings of the Holy Quran." (Each detainee receives a personal Quran in his native language, which non-Muslim guards are forbidden to touch.)
Early in the evening, the search reached Camp 4, the least restrictive of the detention areas. Unlike in the other camps, detainees in Camp 4 are not confined to individual cells but bunk communally and congregate in fenced yards. This is where the detainees live who are most compliant with camp rules. But on that day in May, their cooperation came to an end.
A guard noticed a detainee who appeared to be trying to hang himself. "The detainee had put a sheet in the ceiling around the lights and built what looked like a noose and was putting his head toward that noose," Adm. Harris says. "The quick-reaction force rushed into that [cell] block to save the life of the individual they thought was trying to kill himself. When they got in there, the detainees had slickened the floor with feces, urine and soapy water," making it hard for the guards to keep their footing.
"They proceeded to attack the guard force. . . . The attack was obviously planned. They managed to get a guard down on the ground. They attacked him with broken light fixtures, with fan blades and with [security] cameras that they had torn off to use as bludgeoning weapons. In that process the NCOIC [noncommissioned officer in charge] made the call--a gutsy call--to fire less-than-lethal rounds at the detainees. . . . All that took about three to five minutes. . . . The disturbance was quelled. No one was seriously injured, either the guards or the detainees.
"But at the same time, detainees in two adjacent blocks erupted and tore up their blocks completely--tore down all the lights, tore up all the fans, tore down all the cameras, and all that kind of stuff. They didn't attack the guards, but they did manage to tear up the blocks." In only one Camp 4 cell block did the detainees not riot: "When the uprising, or whatever you call it, happened, they went back into their block very quietly and stood by the beds," Adm. Harris says. "Today, those are the only residents of Camp 4." When I toured the camp, I saw perhaps eight of them, dressed in white, lolling about their outdoor yard. The other blocks are being repaired and made more secure, at a cost to the taxpayer of about $800,000.
Camp 1 is also unoccupied, undergoing repairs owing to the discovery of another sabotage scheme. Cells in Camp 1 were equipped with spring-operated faucets, and the detainees "managed to figure out how to take that apart and . . . pull the spring out. The spring, when it's fully stretched out, is probably a foot long, and it can be used as a weapon to jab someone in the neck or to jab someone in the eye. They would take that spring and hide it in the waistband of their pants. . . . This is just another indication of the creativity that the detainees have as they plan things against us."
Before Camp 1 closed, three detainees there--two Saudis and a Yemeni--succeeded in killing themselves. On the morning of June 10, guards found the trio, all in the same cell block, hanged with clothing and bedsheets.
Domestic foes of the war on terror wasted no time in trying to co-opt the detainees' martyrdom for their own cause. Human Rights Watch claimed that the detainees had suffered from "incredible despair" because they had been "completely cut off from the world." The New York Times editorialized that the suicides were "the inevitable result of creating a netherworld of despair beyond the laws of civilized nations."
Adm. Harris had a different view. "I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us," he said at the time--and he stands by that statement. In response, the Times scolded the admiral for displaying "a profound disassociation from humanity."
His case is the stronger one. The proximity and simultaneity of the suicides argue that they were coordinated rather than spontaneous. Although some detainees suffer from mental illnesses, for which they receive treatment at the camp infirmary, there is no evidence that these three did. "They recently had been given . . . a psychiatric evaluation, and they were all fine," Adm. Harris tells me. It may be hard to comprehend the mentality of one who would kill himself to make a political statement, but to doubt that these men could do so is to test the limits of fatuity. After all, that is exactly what 19 of their comrades did five years ago Monday.
The case against Guantanamo rests on a web of falsehood. Far from being held "beyond the laws of civilized nations"--laws that terrorists, by definition, reject--the detainees here enjoy a panoply of procedural protections. All except the 14 recent arrivals have gone before Combatant Status Review Tribunals to re-examine their designation as enemy combatants--even though these "Article V" hearings are required under international law only if that designation is in doubt, and under the U.S. Supreme Court's 2004 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld ruling if the detainee is a U.S. citizen. (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told me last week that the newly arrived detainees had not yet received Article V hearings but would.) In addition, each detainee annually goes before an Administrative Review Board, analogous to a parole hearing, which determines whether he can be released without harming U.S. security.
These processes are not mere window dressing. As President Bush noted in a speech last week, some 315 of 770 Guantanamo detainees have been released from U.S. custody, either through one of these proceedings or through informal processes that predated them. More than a dozen of the freed detainees, Mr. Bush added, are known to have returned to the battlefield, suggesting that the procedures are, if anything, too lenient.
Many detainees also have petitioned for habeas corpus since the Supreme Court's 2004 Rasul v. Bush ruling; and of course trials for the four detainees who've been charged with war crimes have been delayed only because Osama bin Laden's bodyguard was able to avail himself of our appellate courts to challenge the legality of the proceedings.
Likewise, it is nonsense to say the detainees are "completely cut off from the world." There is no solitary confinement at Guantanamo; even at maximum-security Camp 5, the cells have outside light and openings in the doors through which detainees can communicate with one another. They have ample contact with the world beyond the camp, too. "Over 40,000 pieces of mail have come in and out of here," Adm. Harris says. "If you chose to write one of them a letter, all you'd need to do is put their name on it, say 'Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,' put our ZIP code on it, and they will get that letter.
"Most of the detainees have lawyers," the admiral adds. "There are over 900 habeas lawyers representing less than 450 detainees," and the lawyers are free to visit their clients. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross "come down for almost a month at a time, four times a year, and then [for shorter periods] at other times, and they have unfettered access to any detainee they want to see, whenever they want to see them."
When the Supreme Court extended habeas rights to the detainees, it created a loophole in camp security. Guards screen and censor mail to and from the detainees, but communications with their lawyers are privileged and confidential. "We don't look at the envelope, or in the envelope, at all," Adm. Harris says. "I believe that the detainees could have abused that privilege and used it as an informal mail system" by passing notes to other detainees in envelopes from lawyers. Adm. Harris is careful to note that he does not believe the lawyers are complicit in any abuse, and that he has no ability to confirm his suspicions: "If it's written correspondence, and it's in the habeas envelope, then we cannot get to it."
What is clear is that the detainees have brought more-restrictive conditions on themselves, through suicide, sabotage and other disruptive actions. The erstwhile Camp 4 rioters were relocated to higher-security camps, and the opening of Camp 6, a modern facility modeled on a medium-security prison in Michigan, has been delayed so that officials can harden its security.
"There is such a thing as a medium-security prisoner," Adm. Harris says. "I believe there is no such thing as a medium-security terrorist."
Next article: Hicks Trial a Privilege Not a Right (Australian, 9/25/06)
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