JEFFREY KAYE: A year ago, the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a sleepy and isolated relic of the Cold War, a place where U.S. Marines and Cuban soldiers peered at each other from watchtowers as they had for decades, along the 17- and-half-mile fence line. But last January, life at Guantanamo changed when prisoners began arriving, most of them captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. The men were described by Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as "among the most vicious killers on the face of the earth." Most of the 620 inmates now at Camp Delta, a built-from-scratch maximum security prison, are believed to be citizens of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. won't give a breakdown by nationality other than to say they're from 43 countries.
Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller commands the joint military task force that runs the prison.
MAJ. GEN. GEOFFREY MILLER: The mission here is to be able to detain and interrogate illegal combatants that we have been given until a decision is made on what the future of those detainees is.
JEFFREY KAYE: News cameras aren't allowed inside Camp Delta. Around the base, security is tight. Soldiers patrol the prison perimeter, helicopters circle above. And in the waters of Guantanamo Bay, fast and nimble Coast Guard gunboats stand ready to foil a rescue attempt. Most of the prison guards are Army reservists. They're quartered in "Camp America," just a short walk from the prison camp. Guards say that in the early days, when prisoners first arrived, detainees spat, yelled at, and threw urine at them, but that now a cool and correct relationship prevails.
CPL. MICHAEL BULLOCK: They seem not to be bad people. They seem to be just, you know, your every day good people. And personally, I use extreme caution with dealing with them, because, you know, I'm not sure that they're using certain tactics to try to... to try to reel you in with their... with their good-naturedness, or, you know, so that makes me want to maintain my level and my degree of being cautious.
SPOKESPERSON: Eight, one, two, three. Nine, one, two...
JEFFREY KAYE: Many of the Camp Delta staff were picked for this duty because of their backgrounds in law enforcement and prisons. For example, the superintendent at Camp Delta, Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Vannatta, in civilian life runs the largest maximum security prison in Indiana. He brings real-world experience and attention to details, right down to the toothpaste.
SGT. MAJ. JOHN VANNATTA: The toothpaste that you buy at a grocery store is made out of white plastic. Okay, white plastic toothpaste is something that you could hide an item in and it would be very hard to search unless you emptied it or x-rayed it. In a correctional facility, you use clear plastic and you use transparent toothpaste, so therefore you hold it up to a light and you make sure no weapon's hid in it.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Guantanamo's greatest advantage as a prison is its isolation, a U.S. Naval base on Cuba's southeast tip, accessible only with military permission. Not only are the prisoners here remote geographically, human rights groups say they're off the map legally. The key question is, should the men who are imprisoned here be accorded the full legal rights of prisoners of war, or are they international outlaws who don't deserve the rights of soldiers? Lawyer Michael Ratner is president of the liberal Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which is suing the U.S. Government on behalf of parents of four detainees. Center attorneys argue that under the Geneva Conventions, each captured combatant has the right to a formal legal hearing.
MICHAEL RATNER: If you're captured, you're initially to be treated as a prisoner of war. That doesn't mean you are a prison of war, but the Geneva Conventions say you are initially to be treated as a prisoner of war. If there's any doubt as to whether you're prisoners of war, then you are given a special tribunal, a military tribunal made up of U.S. officers that determine: Were you wearing a headband or something that identified you? Were you a legitimate combatant? Or were you something else? Were you a spy?
JEFFREY KAYE: And if a tribunal finds captives are not legitimate combatants?
MICHAEL RATNER: Then they're treated under our U.S. criminal law. They're brought to the United States, and they're tried under criminal law. It's our position that everybody in the world who is in the detention of a country deserves to have their case heard by a court to determine the legality of their detentions.
JEFFREY KAYE: But Ruth Wedgwood says the terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay are not covered by the Geneva Conventions. Wedgwood is a scholar of international law who advises both the U.S. Departments of State and Defense.
RUTH WEDGWOOD: They're not called prisoners of war in large part because they're not fighting for a state. All the al-Qaida members are fighting for a non-state entity, one that happens to be terroristic and piratical. And there's never been a recognized right to make war on the part of private groups.
JEFFREY KAYE: Wedgwood says international law spells out the criteria for legitimate soldiers.
RUTH WEDGEWOOD: You have to do several things. You have to have a commander who would keep your side more or less in conformity with the laws of war. You have to bear your arms openly, wear some kind of visible insignia, or uniform. And your side does have to generally respect the laws of war.
JEFFREY KAYE: And because the detainees don't meet those standards, Wedgwood contends, the U.S. has greater latitude in how it interrogates the prisoners.
RUTH WEDGWOOD: In the Geneva regime, the interviews have to be what they call equal and not unpleasant, meaning you couldn't say anything insulting, as Geneva puts it. So, some of the usual psychological techniques of a police interview you couldn't use. Again, nobody's disputing that there's an absolute obligation to treat them humanely, decently, fairly, but you can use a psychology of interrogation that might be quarreled with under Geneva.
JEFFREY KAYE: At Guantanamo, officials won't discuss interrogations or legal issues, but they say they are proud of the treatment the military provides the captives.
MAJ. GEN. GEOFFREY MILLER: I would hope that should any of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, coast guardsmen be held as detainees, that they would receive the same kind of humane care and humane detention that we are putting on the ground every day here at JTF Guantanamo.
JEFFREY KAYE: A delegation from the international committee of the Red Cross is monitoring the inmates' treatment, but other than to say they should have legal hearings, Red Cross officials do not comment on their work for fear of compromising their neutrality. When the prisoners first arrived, human rights groups criticized the conditions of captivity. Inmates were kept at Camp X-ray, a makeshift prison with chain- link cages as cells and no plumbing. Last April, when prisoners were moved to the newly built Camp Delta, their living conditions improved, says Army Col. McQueen. He asked us not to use his first name, who supervises the prison.
COL. McQUEEN: The units are approximately eight-by-seven, they have a flush toilet, a small washbasin. There's a metal bed, and we give the detainees mattresses... a mattress and sheets and blankets. For the recreational period, we allow them a 20-minute recreational period that they can go out and walk around and do calisthenics and anything that they might want to do inside the recreational center.
JEFFREY KAYE: When a prisoner arrives, he is issued an orange jumpsuit, a pair of sandals, towels and personal grooming items such as soap and shampoo. For the spiritual needs of Camp Delta inmates, the military has assigned a Muslim chaplain. Each cell has a Koran, the Muslim holy book, and a marker pointing towards Mecca.
SPOKESMAN: It's all hot, all hot.
JEFFREY KAYE: The food distributed to the inmates is prepared according to Muslim religious requirements. The diet is Middle Eastern.
JIM KLUCK: This is fish stew that will go on rice, plus the vegetables. They will also get a baguette, a French baguette, a small roll, bread. They'll get milk, they'll get a piece of fruit, and there will be additional cake served as well.
JEFFREY KAYE: Because of the diet, officials say, detainees, many of whom arrived malnourished, have gained an average of 13 pounds. Navy Commander T.C. Dowden is the base supply officer. He says it was his idea to serve the detainees culturally appropriate meals.
JEFFREY KAYE: There are probably people listening right now who are cringing. These guys are accused of being terrorists. Why are we catering to their dietary needs?
CMDR. T.C. DOWDEN: I don't believe that we're catering. I think that we would be doing the same thing that we would expect from them if they were... if the shoe were on the other foot. If we have people who are going... who could end up being captives someplace, we would expect that our cultures, our traditions would be followed by them as well.
JEFFREY KAYE: A similar principle applies to medical treatment. The same doctors and nurses who treat the general base population also provide medical care to detainees. Inmates are treated in the prison under heavy guard at a field hospital which can handle everything from dental work to life-saving surgeries. Navy Commander Jamie Carroll, who is in charge of the detention hospital, says there is a traditional patient/care- giver relationship.
CMDR. JAIME CARROLL: We don't ask our staff to throw compassion out the window. We're providing medical treatment, and when you provide treatment for someone who is ill or injured, compassion is part of that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Are your patients willing patients?
CMDR. JAIME CARROLL: Yes, I would say 99 percent of the detainees that are very ill or have been ill in the past are very appreciative of the care they receive.
JEFFREY KAYE: What about being cared for by a woman?
CMDR. JAIME CARROLL: We did have a few that preferred not to be and communicated that through interpreters, but they were the ones that were not very sick. You know, when you're sick, you're sick. It doesn't really matter who's taking care of you at that time.
JEFFREY KAYE: Even as U.S. Military officials try to impress upon the world that they are treating the Guantanamo Bay prisoners well, questions persist about who's being held and why. So far, five prisoners have been released, and published reports, quoting unnamed U.S. Military sources, indicate that dozens of others still at Guantanamo have little or no intelligence value. The U.S. has claimed that the war on terror is a new form of warfare in which conventional rules of detention don't apply, but attorney Michael Ratner fears the U.S. will turn Guantanamo Bay into a permanent legal black hole.
MICHAEL RATNER: My darkest dreams are almost there today, which is to say they're able to pick people up anywhere in the world and keep them away from a legal system and keep them in prison indefinitely. My darkest dreams are that it could happen to a much broader level of people, not just so- called alleged fighters of al-Qaida, but anybody the United States deems is an international terrorist, anywhere in the world that picks them up.
JEFFREY KAYE: The military expects a long-term mission and a larger inmate population at Guantanamo Bay. Construction is continuing on more cells, more fences, and more guard towers.