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U.S. Prison Camp Has a Key Flaw

It's called trust. The security system at heavily fortified Guantanamo Bay rests on the belief that all staff members are loyal.

October 13, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Navy Cmdr. Sheldon Stuchell always imagined that if Al Qaeda was going to pull a prison break on Guantanamo Bay, the terrorists would sneak up the Cuban coastline. He pictured enemy agents slinking toward the fortress in submarines with periscopes up, trolling the Caribbean waters for Camp Delta's weakest link.

But Stuchell, a Navy Reserve officer who spent much of last year overseeing external prison security, may have been off the mark. If authorities are correct, it appears the soft spot was not outside; it was within.

Three staffers at the camp -- a chaplain and two translators, all Muslims and all working for the U.S. military -- have been charged in separate cases on suspicion of taking classified material out of the prison, possibly to give it to outside terrorist networks.

The arrests have stunned the military and Capitol Hill, triggering fears, two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, that Al Qaeda may have managed to penetrate what was supposed to be an impregnable prison.

What has been learned is that while Camp Delta may have been secured from outside attack, its internal security system rested largely on trust -- the belief that its staff, all of whom had security clearance, was loyal.

Allegations that the detained staffers appear to have developed sympathies for the prisoners also have alarmed the American Muslim community, raising fears of a backlash against Muslims serving in the military.

Heavily fortified, far from the Afghan battlefield, so remote and hard to get to that it seemed the ideal solution for holding suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban captives, Camp Delta was meant to be the most secure site for detaining combatants in America's war on terror.

Now, the Pentagon has dispatched a special task force to determine the extent of the alleged security breaches, what damage has been caused and how Camp Delta can be fixed.

Democrats are demanding a thorough examination of the general security at the prison and of how staffers and contractors are granted secret clearance to work in an environment filled with classified material.

The military must "restore or create, depending on how bad this is, the adequate capability of Guantanamo to thwart the plans and intentions of terrorists who are out there," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

In the Senate, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding accountability.

"If we are to win the war on terror, we must aggressively pursue terrorists where they take refuge," Schumer wrote. "We must think creatively about weaknesses in our current security structure, especially at our most sensitive bases that we believe to be secure against traditional threats."

Army Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, spokeswoman at Camp Delta, said there was still no evidence linking the three detained Muslim staffers to a single spy ring or plot. The military, she said, continued to evaluate them as individual cases.

The immediate concern, Hart said, was the need to improve security.

"We are very much aware of the situation, and we're making internal assessments," she said. "This is the venue we work and live in every day. It's always paramount in everything we do -- safety and security. So we're fine-tuning every aspect of our mission."

But Stuchell and others who know Camp Delta said it might be impossible to stop information from leaking out.

A military workforce of some 2,000 -- and an undisclosed number of contract employees -- staff Camp Delta. Most live next to the facility, at Camp America, where they have access to computers and the Internet and a postal drop for the U.S. mail.

It might take a strip-search of every guard and chaplain, every translator and cook who passes through the prison gates to ensure that nothing ever gets out, Stuchell said.

"We could open every duffel bag too," he said. "But the only 100% guarantee is not a guarantee at all. Because what if somebody writes letters? What if somebody takes floppy disks and puts them in the U.S. mail? Could he have gotten something out? Of course."

Other former prison officials, interviewed after the news broke last month about the three arrests, agreed there was no ready fix for the problems. Security at Guantanamo, they said, had been built around trust. Once someone obtained security clearance, he was assumed to be loyal and not subjected to routine searches.

Military authorities began monitoring the activities of Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi in November 2002, according to the affidavit filed in September in federal court in Sacramento, near Al-Halabi's home station at Travis Air Force Base. But Al-Halabi was allowed to keep working with detainees for months after he aroused suspicions.

The court documents state that there was evidence Al-Halabi was attempting to deliver classified material "to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign power."

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