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The Gitmo script

A trip to Cuba features strict boundaries and well-rehearsed lines.

March 09, 2007|Karen J. Greenberg | KAREN J. GREENBERG is the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law and editor of "The Torture Debate in America." A longer version of this piece appears at

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, I took the media tour at Guantanamo. From the moment I arrived on a frayed Air Sunshine prop-jet to the time I boarded the same plane to head home, I had no doubt that I was on an alien planet. Along with two European colleagues, I was treated to two-plus days packed with site visits and interviews (none with prisoners) designed to "make transparent" Guantanamo and its manifold contributions to our country's national security.

Thanks to our military handlers, I learned a great deal about Gitmo decorum, as the military would like us to practice it. My escorts told me how best to describe the goings-on at Guantanamo, regardless of what my own eyes and prior knowledge told me.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I picked up:

1. Guantanamo is not a prison. The official term is "detention facility." Although the two most recently built complexes, Camps Five and Six, were modeled on prisons in Indiana and Michigan, it is not acceptable to use the word "prison" at Gitmo.

2. Guantanamo has no prisoners, only "enemies." As in "unlawful enemy combatants" or "detained enemy combatants."

3. Once an enemy combatant, always an enemy combatant. "Today, it is not about guilt or innocence. It's about unlawful enemy combatants," Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commanding officer of Guantanamo, told us. "And they are all unlawful enemy combatants." This despite the fact that the government also has a category for those deemed "no longer an enemy combatant," which was not mentioned. Nor was the possibility of mistaken detention.

4. No trustworthy lawyers come to Guantanamo. The handlers used the term "habeas lawyers" as a seemingly derogatory catchall for those who are defending detainees before the military commissions and those who seek to challenge in U.S. courts the government's right to hold the detainees at all. In a PowerPoint presentation and subsequent remarks, it was clear that at Gitmo, detainees are believed to be using lawyers in accordance with directives in an Al Qaeda training manual that was discovered in Manchester, Britain, in 2000: "Take advantage of visits with habeas lawyers to communicate and exchange information with those outside."

5. Reporters misrepresent Guantanamo. The media arrive with ostensibly open eyes, yet graciously hosted from morning to night, they go home perversely refusing to be complimentary to their hosts. They suffer from "the chameleon effect," as I was told more than once, taking on the colors of betrayers, and "we just don't understand it." For our part, we visitors didn't understand why we were forbidden to walk anywhere -- even to the bathroom -- by ourselves or to talk to anyone other than those we were introduced to.

6. The detainees still possess valuable information. When asked what the detainees could possibly have left to tell interrogators, Harris explained: "We have up-and-coming leadership in Al Qaeda and in the Taliban in Afghanistan, [and] we don't know what they look like.... But their contemporaries ... are quite often the same individuals that are in the camps here today.... Sketch artists will work with these detainees ... and those pictures will be sent out to the forward fighting area." But how reliable would anyone's memory be after five years of isolated detention?

7. Abandon individuality, on either side of the wire. The prisoners were referred to by number. The guards and others, even outside the prison camps, removed the Velcro-fastened names on their uniforms. They told us that they feared retaliation from a presumably all-seeing, all-reaching jihadi network. Reporters too could evidently land them in trouble with Al Qaeda. Thus, many refused to say their names, warning others to be careful not to mistakenly give them away in front of us.

8. Hard facts are scarce. "You'll notice that we speak vaguely. We can't be specific. You will notice that we talk in approximate terms and estimates only. Those are operational security measures."

Typical examples:

"How long has the lieutenant been here?"

"Since she got here."

"Where is Radio Range" (the area on which the camps are built)?

"I never heard of it."

9. Guantanamo houses no contradictions. Islam is treated with respect. The prisoners' food is halal. Every prisoner, even the noncompliant, has a Koran if he wants it. But if you ask about other basic rights, such as the presumption of innocence, a sergeant without a name will chastise you about the dangers posed by enemy combatants.

"We allow two hours of recreation a day in order to comply with the Geneva Convention," we were told. But an escort also pointed out that the authorities need prisoners "to go outside so that we can search their cells for weapons and contraband." Try to explore these differing motives and an officer will reprimand the guide for giving out "misinformation."

I felt sorry for the handlers. Most of them had arrived only about eight months ago and were handed a script. They honestly didn't know the answers to the questions we asked.

10. One final lesson: Visitors who fail to reproduce the official narrative will be punished. "Tell it the wrong way and you won't be back," one of our escorts warned me over lunch.

Only time will tell if I got it right.

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