Guantánamo Bay: the inside story

Published on Times online, by Naomi Wolf, July 25, 2009.

There’s a McDonald’s on the high street, suburban houses, rats the size of dogs, and 229 of the world’s most high-profile prisoners. Six months after President Obama declared that he would close it down, Naomi Wolf heads to Guantánamo Bay to see whether anything has changed …

… Outside, all around us, we saw a facility — one scheduled to be closed by December 2009 — under massive new construction: dozens of labourers were digging, surrounded by the grinding noise of building. A facility that Congress thinks it is discussing the “how” of closing — and that the President has claimed for six months is already slated for closure — was metastasising under our very eyes. When I asked about this I was told that the money had been allocated already and so it would be more expensive to stop construction than to keep it going. Through that open causeway of construction, the detainees in their central cage caught sight of us. 

A sharp, sudden roar arose from the knot of men who spotted us. One of the prisoners looked straight at me and, his face twisted with an emotion that I could not read, screamed: “Go! Go!”

“Why are they saying ‘Go?’” I asked.

The handler looked at me. The Muslim men in the cage were being managed by guards who were mostly African American, and who shouted in colloquial English to get their attention: “Yo! 289! Stop that!” “They learn English from the guards,” he explained. “They aren’t saying ‘Go’.”

What they had screamed out to us — across the greatest possible distance — was: “Yo!”

After these camps, our handlers showed us Camp 4, part of Camp Delta, used to house “more compliant” detainees. A dozen prisoners milled about in a bigger central space (“We call this ‘The Patio’ or ‘The Lanai’,” our handler said; the new talking points also refer to communal meals as “feast days”.) This cage, too, was surrounded by mesh and guards.

I asked a guard if he had formed any personal opinions about the men he was guarding. He paused for a moment. “They don’t complain. They are needy,” he said. I asked what he meant. “Emotionally needy,” he said. “It comes out as asking for things all the time — a certain brand of shampoo, extra blankets … it is a kind of dependency.” The guard was suddenly whisked away. We were then taken to a medical bay. In the white-on-white bay was a military nurse — her name removed from her uniform; she refused to identify herself. And a psychologist stood ready to brief us, next to yet another diorama. Before us was a display of Ensure fanned out across a medical tray table. The nurse, a pleasant, pretty white middle-aged woman with a soft hairstyle and a rueful smile, gestured at the display like a car showroom model. She gave us a rundown of how they feed the prisoners who were on hunger strike.

The nurse confirmed that some detainees were on hunger strike and said that they were fed forcibly “when they refuse to take feeding fluids”. But she didn’t call it force-feeding: “We call it ‘enteral feeding’,” she corrected me. “It goes down the nose and into the stomach.The patients are given a variety of flavours,” she said, going back to her infomercial-style presentation and gesturing at the cartons. “Strawberry, French vanilla, butter pecan — they have a choice. Our admiral did this for a week and he gained four pounds,” she said fondly.

I turned to the psychologist, a dark-haired man in his late forties, heavily muscled, with the same featureless area on his chest where name tags ordinarily are. He, too, refused to give me his name when I asked. I asked him what happens if a detainee is depressed. “We will go see them. They can request the Behavioural Health Unit.” He said that they get “talk therapy” if they need it. “I can empathise,” he said. “I see it as being very similar to people who are detained in any correctional facility.”

I pointed out to the man that perhaps his patients were “depressed and anxious” because of what they had suffered in Guantánamo. (It is now well documented that detainees were subjected to “stress positions”, sleep deprivation, waterboarding and extremes of hot and cold. But for those working at Guantánamo, the talking points on torture seem to be that “abuse may or may not have happened, there is no way to know”: A Department of Defence spokesman, Joe Della Vedova, had called the claim that prisoners had been tortured at Guantánamo, “a posture of the defence”; Petty Officer Dwight called it “a matter of opinion”. And Lieutenant-Commander DeWalt called it “an assertion” and “a point of view”.) I would subsequently discover that the day before I met the psychologist and the nurse, a detainee, Muhammad al-Hanashi, had died, in what the Joint Task Force Guantánamo press office reported as an “alleged suicide”. Six weeks later, that death still has not have been investigated by an independent body …

… “Remember,” Clarke says, “for a lot of these guys, there’s no evidence. The military said that of the 240 guys left here maybe 80 will eventually be ‘tried’ in some form. What about the rest? A lot of these people have been held because they stayed at a guest house or they had some supposed connections or affiliations [with al-Qaeda]. ‘Connections’ are like … someone’s brother was a member. Or allegedly a member. The whole world has a misconception that these guys were picked up on the battlefield. And a whole lot of them were not.

“This country is based on the rule of law,” Clarke continued quietly. “If you truly have no reason to hold someone, you can’t hold them. National security cannot override freedom.

“At the end of the day our freedom is more important. If we lose our freedom — what are we trying to secure?”

What, indeed?

We landed, the lights of Washington now twinkling brightly below us, but the answer still unclear. (full long text).

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