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Camp Gitmo: It gets better all the time

Quality-of-life improvements continue despite President Obama's assurances of its closing. Although the base has become a model detention center, the legal limbo of detainees is a major problem.

September 24, 2009|Judith Miller | Judith Miller is a contributing editor of City Journal, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Fox News contributor.

It's been a busy summer at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The joint task force in charge of the 226 remaining detainees is spending about $440,000 to expand the recreation yards at Camp 6. At nearby Camp 4, which offers communal living for the most "compliant" captives, the soccer yard is being enlarged. At Camp 5, a maximum-security facility, a $73,000 classroom is under construction. In March, the task force added art classes to the thrice-weekly instruction it offers in Arabic, Pashtu and English, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

Though President Obama vowed on his second day in office to close the detention center within a year, Gitmo's officers say they intend to continue spending previously budgeted funds to improve life at the center until the last detainee leaves. "It's business as usual around here," the task force's deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Rafael O'Ferrall, told me two weeks ago during one of the official tours that Gitmo offers outsiders.

The point of the tour is to show that Gitmo, which Obama called a "stain" on America's reputation, has become a model, if somewhat surreal, detention center. And therefore that closing it and relocating its inmates is a largely empty political gesture that makes little sense.

My hosts would never dare publicly challenge their commander in chief's orders. But they clearly believe that Gitmo no longer deserves to be seen as a symbol of human rights abuses. "This place is synonymous with military abuse, and it's just not fair," said Rear Adm. Thomas H. Copeman III, the task force's commander.

Officers at Gitmo are eager to distance themselves from the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that senior Bush administration officials approved soon after 9/11. "No one was ever waterboarded at Gitmo," said Army Col. Bruce E. Vargo, commander of the Joint Detention Group.

Although it's true that a 2005 Pentagon report concluded, after examining 26 complaints from FBI agents involving a small portion of more than 24,000 interrogations at Gitmo, that a few "high-value detainees" had been subjected to treatment that was "degrading and abusive," it "did not rise to the level of prohibited inhumane treatment" or torture. Furthermore, those techniques -- such as loud music, sleep deprivation, temperature manipulation and prolonged shackling -- ended long ago at Gitmo, officers say. Since 2004, interrogation methods have adhered to the Army Field Manual, said Paul B. Rester, the Pentagon official in charge of interrogations: "Loud music has no place in my world."

Officials are sparing little effort or expense to improve Gitmo. They provide captives with prayer rugs, beads, caps and Korans in their native languages. Arrows point toward Mecca. The center spends about $4 million a year offering detainees a choice of six different halal meals a day. The kitchen prepares two Islamic "feast" meals a week and offers fresh food -- such as yogurt, veggie-burger patties with fresh garlic and onion, and scrambled eggs and waffles.

In fact, obesity is increasingly a problem, one Navy doctor said. He knows, because the detainees make roughly 7,800 visits a year to the medical center to receive state-of-the-art care. That includes colonoscopies for "age-appropriate" detainees; 25 have been performed so far. The medical center has one staff member for every two detainees

Hunger strikes are allowed, but only along with "voluntary force-feeding" -- a phrase admittedly worthy of Orwell. Each day, most of the hunger strikers (about 18% of the detainees) line up for Ensure nutritional supplements. They ingest the supplements not through the mouth but through the nostril, via a yellow, spaghetti-size tube lubricated with olive oil. (Butter pecan is the most popular of the five available flavors, the doctor said.) Of course, those who don't "volunteer" are shackled and force-fed anyway. "They have a right to protest, and we have an obligation to keep them alive and healthy while they do so," Copeman explained.

Detainees are also screened for a variety of illnesses -- diphtheria, tuberculosis, flu and HIV. "This place embodies the best of what we do as Americans," the Navy doctor told me, without a trace of irony. Are the detainees grateful? "Some are, some aren't," he said. But like his clientele back in California, "most detainees don't want to die."

Still, some clearly do: There have been five documented suicides so far at Gitmo and many more unsuccessful attempts. The latest -- Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, a 31-year-old Yemeni held here since 2002 -- killed himself in June, apparently by hoarding pills and downing them all at once. (An internal investigation is ongoing.) Depression and other mental ailments among detainees are common, doctors acknowledged.

So Gitmo continues to expand its "intellectual stimulation program": a library of more than 15,000 books, magazines, puzzles, electronic games and newspapers, as well as satellite TV and more than 315 movies on DVD.

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