TOPICS > Nation

Inside Guantanamo

October 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: More than 600 foreign men, most of them captured in Afghanistan, have been held for more than 18 months at a U.S. Military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Some 68 have been released to their home countries, but how long the rest will be held is unclear. The camp is usually off limits to journalists, but last week a group of reporters was allowed to visit the facility. Neil Lewis of the “New York Times” was there, and he joins us now.

Welcome, Neil.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I gather from the story you wrote on Friday that when you arrived there, you found a Red Cross team there, and they had some pretty critical things to say.

NEIL LEWIS: Yes, I actually interviewed the head of the Washington Office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the one that’s based in Switzerland. And they have an unusual agreement with the government that they have access to the prisoners. They’re the only outside group that does. And in exchange for that, they agree not to publicize their criticisms or complaints, unless they feel they’ve been going unheeded, and that’s what happened this time. Christopher Girod, the head of the office, ended this long public silence and said publicly that the conditions at the camp were just unacceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: But I gather he wasn’t so much talking about physical conditions as the… what — the sort of uncertainty of their condition?

NEIL LEWIS: Indeed. He had no public complaints about the physical conditions– torture, food, any of those kind of things that the Red Cross usually deals with. His complaint, and the committee’s complaint, is a far broader and in a sense more subtle complaint that these people are being held indefinitely with no sense of what the legal process is.

And he says that when he and his colleagues in the Red Cross made visits through the camp, as they were doing on the day before, he said the number-one question the inmates are always asking is “what’s happening? How long will this last?” And because of the uncertainty about their future, some outside groups– and the Red Cross concurs– believe that this uncertainty has led to widespread incidents of clinical depression. One in five inmates is on some antidepressant. And 21 of them have attempted suicide 32 times– some repeat guys.

MARGARET WARNER: What does the Pentagon, or what do the camp commanders say in response?

NEIL LEWIS: General Jeffrey Miller, who is the commander of the joint task force that runs the prison, in an interview that day, before I left, said, “we don’t want to keep any of these people a day longer than is necessary.”

However, he said they are still mining them for valuable intelligence. I would point out that’s kind of a controversial point. They’ve been there for 18 months; they’re still getting interrogated, and whatever portion of them have valuable intelligence is sort of open to debate. But he says it’s still working; they’re getting good stuff from them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now tell us about the camp itself. I gather security is incredibly tight.

NEIL LEWIS: Remember, this is a strange place anyway, the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. It’s on the southeastern part of Cuba. The base is ringed with 17 miles of fence and guards and watchtowers. And like a lot of military bases, it’s a little slice of America, with McDonald’s and a subway and a PX. But the camp, the prison camp is kept in one remote corner. It’s behind these mountains.

It’s ringed by several layers of fencing and perimeters. And around it also there are soldiers who patrol in small groups usually of four, on hot, miserable Guantanamo days with green camouflage paint on their faces. So the security is extremely tight on the outside.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you get inside, as I understand it, there are really two camps. Let’s talk about the camp with the detainees first, this Camp Delta. What are the conditions under which they are held?

NEIL LEWIS: Most of the men who are detainees at Camp Delta are held one to a cell. And they remain in the cell but for two or three 15-20-minute periods a week when they are let out individually for showers and some simple exercise in a little… just a little area, and they usually kick around a soccer ball. Each cell is on three sides sort of chain-link fence, so an inmate can see what’s in front of him and what’s to the sides.

And the military is very eager to demonstrate tolerance of Islam, so each cell, the inmate has a copy of the Koran, and they have figured out… they gave them surgical masks so the Koran is suspended in it and tied to the ceiling, since it’s not supposed to touch the floor; beads, oils, for prayer. And it’s the only military base in the nation or abroad in which the Muslim call to prayer rings out five times a day from the loudspeaker.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, were you allowed to, “a,” see these prisoners, and “b,” were you allowed to talk to them at all?

NEIL LEWIS: Not at all– not to see them nor talk to them. And the government’s response to that, or explanation, I should say, is that that would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions, in which you’re not supposed to expose prisoners to public ridicule or even public exposure in any sort.

MARGARET WARNER: I gather also that there’s a separate facility for the teenagers. How many there are and what’s that like?

NEIL LEWIS: There are three between the ages of 13 and 16, kept in an area called Camp Iguana, which is separate from Camp Delta. It’s an old recreation area. And we did get to see that. It’s a house. They do live communally, the three of them, and they have a teacher come in every day that teaches them in their native language, which is Pashto.

MARGARET WARNER: You talk about trying to be culturally sensitive in terms what was they had in the cells. What about the food?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, they’re served three meals a day, two of them hot. You’d have to say they’re pretty good meals by some standards. The camp went out of its way during Ramadan to serve them breakfast quite early before dawn, because they… most of them fast, and something of a larger meal or a feast later.

They’re working on a philosophy of rewards and punishments moving up in that. So if you get into camp one, the better camp, they are given dates and other kinds of Middle Eastern foods. They get a bread ration every day, and it changes from pita bread– Middle Eastern– bagels is one of them, and many have developed a taste for that. I’m not sure they know what it is, nor should they and something else that the cooks call Taliban bread.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, there’s another camp for the… where the actual soldiers live. What’s it called? Camp America.

NEIL LEWIS: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: What is that like?

NEIL LEWIS: It’s kind of dreary. I don’t mean to suggest it’s not a great improvement over Camp Delta, but it’s again prefab barracks. Unlike the camp delta, it’s air conditioned, which is an important thing in the broiling sun of Guantanamo. And they live in bunk beds, and most of the people, military people there are reservists or National Guard. About three-quarters of them are not regular army. And most of them do not expect to be there this long.

MARGARET WARNER: And then of course there’s a whole other class of people that come in and out, as I understand it. They aren’t soldiers; they aren’t detainees; they’re these contract workers.

NEIL LEWIS: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Who are they? What are they doing there?

NEIL LEWIS: There are different sets. There are contract workers who run the food service place outside of Camp Delta. There are contract workers who are building this new prison. And most significantly, recently, there are contract workers who are translators. There are 70 translators on the base to help the military interrogators. About half are contract employees and half are in uniform.

MARGARET WARNER: So as you mentioned, there has been some difficulty about this three people working at the base. One, a contract worker, has been arrested on suspicion of espionage.

NEIL LEWIS: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: How concerned is the military that there was some wider effort afoot to infiltrate the base, and what are they doing about it?

NEIL LEWIS: I think at present they don’t know if there was. As of last week, they began a larger-scale investigation. So they’ve kept it within the military. It’s a Defense Department investigation. It doesn’t involve the FBI, and they do not yet know whether there was a larger conspiracy to infiltrate the base. The three people who were arrested on charges of espionage have in common that they had contact with the inmates.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let’s go back now to the status of these 600 prisoners. In July, the president designated some six as eligible for military tribunals. I gather they’re going to be tried there. What’s the status of that whole thing?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, the critics of Guantanamo want the military to get moving in sorting out these people. There are really sort of two doors out of Guantanamo. One is to a military tribunal, where they might be charged with some offense of the laws of war. And the other is to be sent home. They have refurbished a building on Guantanamo for these tribunals, and… but they have not moved forward with them yet. And it may well be that the investigation about whether there’s a live conspiracy will delay that.

MARGARET WARNER: Neil Lewis, thank you.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Margaret.