Off Assignment, August 2016.

My Guantánamo, and Theirs

(See original, with multimedia, here)
Off Assignment, August, 2016

I didn’t get to see Camp X-Ray on my first trip to Guantánamo—in 2003, for The New York Times Magazine. The original detention facility for prisoners of the war on terror, it was used for only a few months, until something larger and sturdier was ready. But on my second visit, in 2014 for Vanity Fair, the military placed the abandoned prison on the itinerary for the morning of my third and final day.

As happens often on a trip to Guantánamo, seeing X-Ray involved some powerful cognitive dissonance. The sun was warm and the ocean breeze soothing. The military press person who roused me and three other visiting journalists from our suburban-style air-conditioned condos on the naval base, Sgt. Wood, was sweet and perky. Her more dour colleague, a man we’d nicknamed Cody 1 (the other Cody, younger and happier, was Cody 2), drove our minivan into a seemingly undeveloped part of the big naval base, with rolling hills and tall brown grass. It was reminding me of Sonoma in the wintertime, until we pulled off the road and saw the listing wooden guard tower, the tall poles with lights, the long stretches of vine-covered chain-link fences.
“I challenge anyone who doesn’t believe in ghosts to step into X-Ray and tell me they don’t exist. You feel them, even in bright light, even outdoors. Prisoners long gone, this place holds their wounds.”

I challenge anyone who doesn’t believe in ghosts to step into X-Ray and tell me they don’t exist. You feel them, even in bright light, even outdoors. Prisoners long gone, this place holds their wounds.

X-Ray today looks, as I once wrote, like “a kennel complex for very large dogs.” Its rows and rows of cages (300 of them) have been overtaken by grass and vines. Some have been occupied by the large rodents Americans call banana rats—they chirp and dash under the tin roofs when we approach. Anything made of wood—a guardhouse here, a watchtower there—is in a state of near-collapse. The green canvas tents visible in old photos have disappeared. Cody 1 beat a trail through the tall brown grass to give us a feel for the place. Then we followed him down a path lined with razor wire to an adjoining area where five identical plywood shacks were slowly falling down. In the first one, the floor was collapsing, along with the rough-hewn furniture attached to it: a table with a bench on each side and, at the foot of one bench, a loop or “single-point restraint” bolted to the floor, for attaching a detainee’s shackles. “These are the intel shacks,” said Cody 1, “where they interrogated people.”

He said he didn’t know much more about them than that, and soon the tour was over. “You can look around for a little if you want,” he explained to us. He and the others left but I stayed put. It was not every day you could stand in a space like this. By and large the military’s detention mission at Guantánamo has been conducted in complete secrecy. To this day, no journalist has ever been allowed to interview a detainee. We have been shown different spaces over the years, typically empty cells with displays of the clothing and hygiene items given to them, the kufi cap and the Koran. But interrogations are seldom ever mentioned. I have read descriptions from FBI agents and former detainees: the detainee chained to the floor in a “stress position” where he can’t stand up, and is soon lying in his own urine and feces. The air conditioning turned up high so he shivers, or off, so he bakes. Heavy-metal music blasted at him for hours to keep him awake and wear him down. Strobe lights and dogs. Whether those particular things happened here I don’t know. The window frames were empty now; it was not a stretch to imagine prisoners, a hundred yards away in their cages, catching some of the terrible sounds that issued from these huts. Shrieks, perhaps, of terror.

* * *

My mission, back in 2003, was simply to give readers a sense of Camp Delta, the successor to X-Ray. Open barely a year, it was little-known by most of the world. Then, as now, getting to know it was difficult, given the tight control the Joint Task Force exercised over information. I and the Times’ photographer and the correspondent from National Public Radio were never alone. We saw no prisoners. All the staff who spoke to us had been prepped on what to say. We were allowed to stay just over 48 hours.

This time, reporting for Vanity Fair, my assignment was different. The detention mission was 12 years old, and nefarious worldwide.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had reduced the number of prisoners to around 150 from a high of over 700; most of those remaining had been cleared for release.* And yet movements to get them out, and Obama’s effort to close the prison, seemed to have stalled. I discussed it with my editor at Vanity Fair: While Guantánamo has been widely associated with lack of due process, little had been said about its use of indefinite solitary confinement as a punishment for “noncompliant” prisoners. In the months before my visit, two mass hunger strikes had taken place; some two dozen prisoners were still striking. They and others were held in special isolation; the hunger strikers, in addition, were force-fed twice a day.

The United States has a long history of solitary confinement, dating to the Quakers who ran Philadelphia and the idea behind their “penitentiary”: that penitent reflection, brought on by solitary silence, could lead wrongdoers to reform. Even today, with that idea debunked, we as a nation have invested heavily in solitary, as witnessed by the supermax prisons which dot the country. Guantánamo, I suggested to my editor, rather than being an outlier, is in many ways a reflection of mainstream American prison practice. He liked the idea and I called the Joint Task Force press office to schedule a visit. Once that was OK’d, I tackled the larger hurdle: booking a seat on the semi-weekly commercial flight from Miami to the U.S. naval base carved out of a corner of Cuba.

I wasn’t positive that going back to Guantánamo would help me write the piece. It would all depend on what they showed me, and I wouldn’t know that until I was there.

The press office didn’t ask about my angle but they did inquire whether there was anyone in particular I’d like to speak with. I mentioned Colonel John Bogdan, who oversaw prison operations and whose harsh reforms were said to have sparked a hunger strike involving over 100 detainees (the military calls them “long-term nonreligious fasters”). I mentioned the forced feeding (the military calls it “enteral feeding”). I mentioned Camp Five and its secret unit, Camp Five Echo, where the noncompliant prisoners are housed in solitary (the military calls it “single-cell operations” and refuses to acknowledge the existence of Five Echo, where, according to detainee lawyers, cells lack sinks or toilets—they contain only faucets and a hole in the floor).

Soon after arrival, I was given my itinerary. Colonel Bogdan was not on it and, I was told, would “not be available.” I would not be allowed to witness “enteral feeding,” but health staff would explain the procedures involved in it. I’d get a look inside Five, but there was no mention of Five Echo, which, to my knowledge, the military has never shown to a journalist.

* * *

Back on my first visit, I’d done my best to charm the public affairs staff, reasoning that you catch more flies with honey, and if they like you they might reveal more. But the cool, vague reception my questions about the itinerary elicited from Captain Andi Hahn, who put it together, robbed me of hope. I thought about what her job must be like: trying to act helpful toward journalists whom, she knew from long experience, were deeply skeptical of everything they would hear and everything they would be shown. (Has there ever been a positive story about Guantánamo?) Charm, I concluded, was unlikely to make much of a difference, and this felt freeing.

This gap between us—an entourage of four journalists, fresh from the airport—and them came up within hours of arrival, after we had dropped our luggage at two adjoining condos on the Navy base. Sergeant Wood picked up the four of us in a minivan to bring us to dinner with her boss at a mess hall called the Gold Hill Galley. As we arrived, Dutch photographer René Clement asked her why our schedule included no meetings with detainees. “Because they can’t be used as a spectacle,” she replied. “The Third Geneva Convention prohibits us from exposing them to public ridicule.”

Clement was immediately incensed; apparently he hadn’t known how the military used that rationale to keep prisoners out of the public eye. (When it came to the war on terror, my government invoked the Geneva Conventions when it was convenient and ignored them when it was not. We refused to consider our prisoners to be POWs, for example, instead calling them “unlawful enemy combatants” or simply “detainees”—stateless fighters not entitled to protections such as freedom from interrogation or the right to congregate with each other.)

What did you say? Ridicule? We’re journalists. We’re the only hope they have!”

Sergeant Wood looked taken aback. She slid the minivan door closed and walked us inside, trying to explain that their hands were tied by the Geneva Conventions. It was a bit awkward, and completely gratifying.

Awaiting us were her immediate superior, Captain Hahn, and Commander Filostrat, the new head of public affairs. Our itinerary said “dinner with Public Affairs Staff” but Commander Filostrat had already eaten. He was carrying a bag and looked as though he’d prefer to be out the door as soon as possible. Soon after introductions, the detainee access question was brought up again, this time by the Yahoo News reporter, Liz Goodwin. Commander Filostrat recited the same line about ridicule that Sergeant Wood did, and this time I objected; I can’t help it when somebody speaks to me as if I’m an idiot.

“Seems to me you either respect the Geneva Conventions or you don’t. Here you don’t—you call them detainees, because if they’re ‘prisoners’ we have to offer them the protections of POWs. But to then cite the Geneva Conventions as the reason we can’t talk to them? I don’t expect it’s something you can change. But to state it like it makes sense…” The commander looked surprised and offended. Apparently it made sense to him. The conversation moved on.

They handed us folders explaining the rules, mostly about photography. At the end of each day, Clement would have to show every single photo he had taken to the press officers for OP-SEC (Operations Security) review. Things they couldn’t reveal: faces, whether belonging to soldier or detainee. Aspects of architecture that could help someone plan an attack. Antennas. Gates. Configurations.

The front page of the press kit sported the name “Joint Task Force Guantánamo,” and these words, mounted I suppose, as a preemptive strike against every criticism we might level:

Safe • Humane • Legal • Transparent

* * *

Modeled on a high-security prison in Indiana, Camp Five sits behind a high fence emblazoned with Gitmo’s other slogan: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. It is where they place noncompliant prisoners, including everyone on hunger strike. I was glad it was on the tour but could soon see that the point of the tour was the same as on my previous visit to Delta. The P.R. challenge: show journalists the inside of the building without revealing anything newsworthy. The P.R. solution, unchanged for a decade: speed them through a wing devoid of prisoners, stopping to let them enter a cell filled with the items a typical prisoner receives.

Six or seven guards accompanied us four journalists: Why so many? All the guards but one were young, all had the names on their shirts covered in black tape, so that neither detainees nor journalists could know them. The guard in charge opened the heavy door to the model cell and we took turns going inside—it was so tiny we couldn’t all fit at once, and had a single blurry, needle-thin window you couldn’t see out of. There was a camera up in one corner. Next he showed us a good-behavior cell directly opposite. It was the same as the others, but had a television with a big beige easy chair in front of it, along with another “single-point restraint” on the floor for attaching the prisoner’s shackles while he enjoyed his TV time. Of course, he acknowledged, Five is now completely “single-cell operations” (solitary confinement) for non-compliant prisoners, so none have routine access to TV time.

He continued a rapid-fire patter: Prisoners are monitored every one to three minutes by guards who look into their cells. Guards wear transparent splash shields over their faces to keep from getting splattered by bodily fluids. In fact, he said, the “bean hole” slots in every door had been modified so that they’d be spray-proof. End of tour, on to Camp Six—oh, any questions? I raised my hand.

If the bean holes are spray-proof, I asked, why did guards still need splash shields? The guide-guard said something vague about the bean holes not always working. I persisted, saying that if the guards used the bean holes properly, there’s no way they could be sprayed, right? He was flummoxed, and stepped to the side as the one middle-aged man among the soldiers came to the front. He tried to demonstrate, impatiently, the operation of the bean hole. He clearly had more knowledge and authority than the others, so I asked who he was. A corrections administrator from Michigan, he said—but later I would learn from a photo that he was the No. 2 in charge of detention here, a lieutenant colonel. I realized that he had intended just to lurk in the back of the pack; my questions flushed him out. I thanked him and asked if we might see Five Echo. “This is all you’ll be seeing today,” said the lieutenant colonel, and the tour was over.

Fifteen minutes after we entered Five, we walked into Six next door, where prisoners who followed orders were kept. The building has roughly the same bulk but the layout is different: Instead of individual cells, here there are pods, with individual cells arrayed around a common area that has metal picnic tables bolted to the floor—a design seen a lot on television prison shows. And then came a surprise: Through thick one-way glass, we could see a few of the detainees, four or five. They had dark beards and kufis. They were listening to headphones and reading and watching a TV. They were unaware we were watching. “Depending on when you’re here, you can see them pray,” offered a guard. Kind of like: If you’re lucky, you’ll be here at feeding time. But not today. Fifteen more minutes, and we were back outside.

* * *

I’d seen little, so far, of practical use for my article, though all of it interested me: the harsh conditions of confinement, the resistance on the part of so many prisoners, the energy expended by the military in showing us so little.

The fourth journalist in our group, writing for the Dutch Marie Claire, had requested an interview with female guards, and we all were able to attend. It took place in a conference room at Echo, where some of the most restrictive cells are located; I had heard that these days, Echo held snitches and cooperators. Our handler, Captain Hahn, said she’d tell us more about it later, but she never did.

She showed us to a small meeting room where the two guards were waiting for us. One was tall and butch, 24, from Alabama; the other was slight and depressive, 23, from Arizona. They told us about their living situation in the guard colony called Camp America (six to a tent, not much to do), and gave vent to their frustrations at working with the detainees—many refused to look at women and would even turn their backs when they approached. They became agitated if they were touched by a woman and would spew profanity. “It’s belittling,” said the 23-year-old. “You have to be emotionless,” to do the job day after day.

Their shifts lasted 12 or 13 hours, five days a week. Among their jobs was monitoring the video cameras. Every cell and communal area, it turned out, has one; every prisoner might theoretically be under surveillance every hour of the day. The work sounded killingly dull, grim, and repetitive. But they did it, because that’s what soldiers do.

We exited to hot and muggy air, and an intriguing offer: Cody 2, the young one, asked if anyone wanted to go for a swim. I imagined he was thinking of some naval rec center pool but he meant the ocean. We spun by our condos to grab suits and towels. Fifteen minutes later, we were driving away from the matrix of detention centers toward an empty part of the base. Cody 2 parked the van in a dirt lot and led us down a long, rusting staircase over a craggy rock face, to a small beach. The water felt good and the journalists went in. Cody 2, wearing sunglasses and his uniform and yakking on his cell phone, watched us from shore. Was this wrong? Should we, witnesses to scenes of suffering and of American lawlessness, be bathing in the warm waters of a sovereign nation whose land we had seized? We bobbed up and down in the last, golden light of day.

* * *

The landscape on the drive back looked familiar. I asked Cody 2 if we were near a bucolic prison unit called Camp Iguana and he said yes.

I had been taken there in 2003—it was a last-minute addition to the itinerary, and somewhat mind-boggling. Our escort had told me and a reporter for National Public Radio that Iguana, a two-room, one-time officers’ club overlooking the sea, had been recently converted into a pen for at least three “juvenile enemy combatants.” It was the first time that the military had told anybody it was locking up kids.

We hadn’t been allowed to see the kids, of course, but we were shown where they were kept, and one of their teachers explained how they spent their days: learning to read and write in English, throwing a Nerf football, playing board games, and watching videos. Their ages ranged from 13 to 15.

Those kids were no longer at Guantánamo, and Iguana was now being used to house the Chinese Muslims called Uighurs. The military had all but admitted that taking the Uighurs into custody was a mistake, and was trying hard, while we were there, to find countries that would accept them. Sergeant Wood told me they were no longer even considered detainees, but instead “residents” awaiting transfer—a designation that allowed them, for example, to order out for pizza.

Learning about the existence of “juvenile enemy combatants”** was only one surprise of my first trip. The other was a last-minute offer of an interview with Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. At the time, he headed the Joint Task Force, but soon he would play the role for which he became notorious: Miller presided over the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib, during the period when photos were leaked of G.I.s posing with prisoners they tortured. We had about ten minutes with him, in a bland administrative office. I asked Maj. Gen. Miller about the torture allegations at Guantánamo.

“We do nothing here in Camp Delta that we wouldn’t be proud of,’’ said the general. I asked more pointedly what they did to get people to talk. Well, they never used drugs nor ‘‘violence or infliction of physical pain or anything psychological other than standard interrogation techniques.’’ And what were the ‘‘standard techniques’’? Miller declined to say, asserting that to do so might aid the enemy and put American troops and his mission at risk.

Because we are journalists, we look for as many ways as we can of learning about people and situations. I found the memoir of a Turkish ex-detainee, Murat Kurnaz, which described a group shit-down of Gen. Miller. In the corridor of his solitary confinement cell in Oscar block, Kurnaz wrote,

I heard one of the prisoners shouting in Arabic: “Listen up, Miller’s coming! If you want to give him a gift, then get ready and do it now!…”

When they reached the middle of the corridor, the first prisoner threw a mixture of water and feces, collected in a bowl or in an M.R.E. packet, at the general. He hit his target. The general let out a cry, held up his arms to shield his face, and turned away. At that moment, he got another load from the cell opposite. He ran down the corridor to the end of the block, and everyone else hurled the contents of his bowl. The officers tried to shield the general…

Our punishment turned out to be relatively mild. We were not given any bread for several days, and our spell in solitary confinement was extended by a month. There was nothing else they could have done short of killing us.

* * *

Speaking of death, what do you do with a person in your care who wants to die? In the case of someone extremely elderly or extremely ill or disabled, some institutions will support them in a decision to end their lives by not eating.

But if you are a prisoner at Guantánamo, ending your life that way is not an option. Over the years there have been three major, extended hunger strikes by prisoners. Perceiving a political motive in the self-starvation (“an act of asymmetrical warfare against us,” one commander memorably called the hunger strike on his watch), Guantánamo fought back. It force-fed prisoners who dropped below a certain weight. Most prisoners eventually gave up the strike, but some have continued—for a long time. Guantánamo calls these men “long-term nonreligious fasters.” One has been force-fed more than 5,000 times; the repeated insertions of tubes up his nose have left one side permanently closed and the other damaged, according to his lawyer. Journalists have never been shown “enteral feeding” (though, as I write this, a federal judge has ordered the government to release video showing the procedure). Instead, on the next day’s “Detainee Hospital/Behavior Health Tour,” we were offered a demonstration of force-feeding that centered around an empty black chair. The chair was special, wheeled, and straight-backed, and equipped with yards of straps to secure legs, arms, chest, and head. A soldier who said he was a medical doctor explained how it’s done: Twice a day, prisoners are strapped securely to the chair. A technician lubricates a long plastic tube with olive oil and threads it through a nostril and into the stomach. A dietary supplement such as Ensure is poured in, slowly—if they do it too fast and the prisoner throws up on himself, they have to start over.

The man telling us this looked a bit nervous, as though he expected hard questions. Here was one: Doesn’t this sort of treatment violate a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath?

“The military views it as keeping a person alive,” he replied.

* * *

If you visit Guantánamo you may want a souvenir. They have them—lots of them—in the gift shop.

There are T-shirts and hoodies with slogans like, “I love Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” and “It don’t GTMO better than this.” Lip balm with “I ❤ Guantánamo.” The large assortment of plush toys includes three specimens of local fauna: iguanas; turkey vultures; and, my favorite, banana rats. I picked up a banana rat refrigerator magnet for my daughter, who appreciates furry things.

At the gift shop of Radio Guantánamo, which we visited on our third and final morning, there are T-shirts with a cartoon drawing of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar, and the slogan, “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard,” and a bobble-head doll of the same, standing on a little boombox.

But souvenirs specific to the detention mission are scarce. I found only one, a coffee mug with an image of X-Ray, Guantánamo’s ghostly first prison, depicting concertina wire and a guard tower.

* * *

Shortly before our departure, we were given a tour of the shiny new courtroom for military commissions, so far little used. Legal challenges, many by the military’s own lawyers, have led to an epic series of delays and continuances. (In the months since my visit, the courtroom facility has been in the news mainly because of allegations by military lawyers that spending time there gave them cancer.)

Outside I chatted a bit with Cody 1, who is from Idaho. I told him I was born on a Navy base; my dad was a Navy pilot before he became a lawyer. Cody 1 said that some of his time, when he’s not showing journalists around, is spent making arrangements for civilian lawyers who fly to Guantánamo to represent their clients pro bono.

“I just don’t get it,” he said, “why anybody would want to represent a terrorist.”

A moment of rare candor. I ventured they’d probably do it for the same reason a journalist would want to write about their captivity. “It’s not because we think they’re innocent,” I said. “It’s because the world is watching. It’s about law. It’s about us.”

Cody 1 shook his head. His big boss also had trouble understanding. Last summer, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, then head of the U.S. Southern Command, berated the press in a speech to troops. Media coverage of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, he said, “breaks my heart because I know the reporting is wrong, and I believe the media representatives that report what goes on here know it’s wrong but they go on their merry way highlighting the negative aspects of what might go on at Gitmo, never giving you credit for what you do here.”

It’s hard to learn details about solitary confinement during a brief visit to Guantánamo, hard to catch sight of a detainee, let alone hear his voice. But the context of all this, military hearts and minds, the captors’ point of view, American fearfulness made concrete? That, on a guided tour, you can reach.

* As of August 10, 2016, the number of detainees stood at 76. Thirty-four of them have been cleared for transfer.

** Researchers have since shown that Guantanamo has likely held between 15 and 22 detainees who are minors. (The U.S. Department of State has acknowledged a dozen of these.)

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