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A Look Behind the 'Wire' At Guantanamo

Defense Memos Raised Questions About Detainee Treatment as Red Cross Sought Changes

By Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page A01

On the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the newly arriving detainees thought they were walking into certain death. Dressed in reddish jumpsuits, a hue reserved for condemned men in the Arab world, the captives believed they were about to be executed.

U.S. military officers wondered whether the fears could work in their favor.

The Red Cross criticized the use of open-air cages instead of enclosed cells as inhumane treatment under the international laws of war. Camp X-Ray was replaced by the more modern Camp Delta, where an incentive-based system was used to improve the flow of intelligence. (Marc Serota -- Reuters)

"The detainees think they are being taken to be shot," the military officers noted in one of a series of Defense Department memos written at the base and obtained by The Washington Post. "Should we continue not to tell them what is going on and keep them scared."

The previously undisclosed memos provide one of the most complete pictures to date of life behind the "wire" at Guantanamo. The detainees wanted an extra pair of shorts to wear in the shower, for privacy. They asked that the call to prayer be broadcast in camp, but a CD player could not be found. They asked for tea with "lots of sugar." The response: "Not now. However, we will reconsider in the future." Of the 600 detainees, 200 cooperated with their keepers.

The memos also document for the first time the precise nature of a number of long-standing concerns issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross over the treatment of suspected al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters held at the base.

Among them: U.S. interrogators were placing detainees in isolation holds for as long as a month at a time for refusing to furnish information. Extraordinarily long interrogation sessions were having a "cumulative effect" on the mental health of the captives. And the reliance upon open-air cages instead of enclosed cells constituted inhumane treatment under the international laws of war.

Nearly two years after the camp opened, Red Cross officials sharply criticized the U.S. government for continuing to use the cages and keeping detainees in "excessive isolation," and for failing to establish due process or a stepped-up release schedule, according to the memos.

"There was no improvement in any of the four major areas of concern," an Oct. 9, 2003, memo states.

The memos also contain tantalizing clues about several high-value detainees who were off-limits to Red Cross inspectors during their periodic visits to Guantanamo, which typically lasted four to six weeks. A source familiar with captives at the base said one of the detainees, No. 760, is a close associate of Osama bin Laden, Abdallah Tabarak. The Moroccan citizen was bin Laden's personal bodyguard, took part in the Tora Bora battles in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 and sacrificed himself to secure bin Laden's escape by making calls on the al Qaeda leader's personal satellite telephone.

Red Cross officials were not permitted to interview Tabarak as recently as Feb. 2, according to a memo documenting a meeting at the base that day.

"Is there a possibility we can see him?" asked Vincent Cassard, the head of the Red Cross inspection team.

"Because of military necessity, the ICRC may not have private talks with him," said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then commander of detention operations at Guantanamo and now in charge of U.S. prison facilities in Iraq. ". . . He is the only one here at the Camp who has restricted access."

A Defense Department spokeswoman declined to say last week who is being held at Guantanamo as part of a broader policy barring the disclosure of the identities of detainees at the base. Red Cross officials also declined to identify detainees or discuss the memos. Red Cross officials rarely issue public comments and criticisms, fearing they could lose access to detention facilities and prisoners.

"Confidentiality prevents us from being able to confirm or deny what we have seen, what we have heard from detainees and what we have discussed with the authorities," Red Cross spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said.

Defense Department officials declined to discuss the memos, stressing the importance of maintaining confidentiality in their conversations with the Red Cross. "There's been a good working relationship," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind, a Defense Department spokeswoman. "A lot of the concerns that they have brought up have been addressed."

She said there have been "significant improvements" in the quality of life for detainees and the Pentagon is planning hearings to review the status of each of the 595 detainees.

"Basically, a lot of things have changed and improved down there since it first opened," Burfeind said. "There's been an ongoing dialogue with the Red Cross, and that has been very helpful."

Since Guantanamo received its first detainees in January 2002, U.S. officials have closely guarded what takes place on the cellblocks, who is held there and when the captives might be released. The open-ended nature of the detentions has been condemned by foreign governments and human rights groups. The constitutionality of the detentions is being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule within the next few weeks whether detainees can be held without access to lawyers or courtrooms.

Record of Visits

While the Defense Department memos are not a complete record of the half-dozen Red Cross visits to the base, they do provide a rare account of detainee life and the conversations between members of the international humanitarian group and top detention commanders.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the Defense Department opened Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo, a primitive collection of hastily erected chain-link cages on slabs of concrete in a remote area of the Navy base. Six days later, Red Cross officials visited the base. They met with the prison commanders on Jan. 21.

The conversation was cordial.

"The meeting was very informal, but well structured," a military officer wrote in one of the memos. "The ICRC delegates were very appreciative of support and access provided."

Red Cross officials said they were "very pleased" with the treatment of the detainees and appreciate that the situation is "fluid" and commanders must be flexible, the memo said. "They accept that the U.S. must factor protection as a paramount consideration."

After the meeting, military officers prepared a document titled "General Observation and Meeting Notes." The document shows that military officers were forced to confront numerous questions and concerns raised by the Red Cross.

The military officers noted that the detainees, the vast majority of them Muslim, believed the reddish jumpsuits were a sign that they were going to be put to death. The officers wondered whether they should explain that was not the case, change the color of the jumpsuits or do nothing.

In a section of the document subtitled "Issues for Commander," the military officers wrote:

• Should we continue not to tell them what is going on and keep them scared. ICRC says that they are very scared.

• What are the benefits of keeping them scared vs. telling them what is happening?

• What additional problems are caused when they are this scared?

The military officers said the commander of Guantanamo might want to consider that the detainees were not "thinking logically" and "the detainees think they are being taken to be shot." The officers also noted that the varied religious and ethnic backgrounds of the detainees were causing confusion and generating a series of issues that had to be resolved.

The detainees felt humiliated by being forced to shower naked in front of other captives and military police soldiers. The prisoners were not permitted to grow beards, a key religious practice. They did not have cloth to keep their Korans clean and off the floor. Pakistanis said they could not sleep unless their faces were covered. Detainees said they needed prayer beads and caps, and wanted calls to prayer to be broadcast five times a day.

"We need to get an expert in their culture to help us," the officers wrote in the memo.

Concerns Outlined

A few days later, on Jan. 24, 2002, military officers prepared a five-page memo documenting 29 concerns the Red Cross delegation had raised on behalf of the detainees. The detention commanders decided to provide detainees with cloth for their Korans, daily prayer calls once they found a CD player and shorts for the shower. The commanders also decided to tell the detainees that the color of the jumpsuits did not portend a death sentence.

"Detainees are informed that the purpose of the fluorescent jump is to identify them as 'detainees' and that it is worn for security purposes," the memo said.

The military commanders also denied or delayed decisions on some of the Red Cross requests made on behalf of the detainees. The detainees would not initially be told where they were. They would not be permitted to be arranged in cells near those of similar nationalities who speak the same language.

"Not until the initial round of interrogations is completed," the memo said.

Within a few months, the military would close Camp X-Ray and replace it with a more modern facility called Camp Delta. Although detainees were still kept in metal cages, military officers made improvements to the camp. They also started an incentive-based system in an effort to improve the flow of intelligence during interrogations.

In October 2003, the Red Cross team was back at Guantanamo. On this trip, the team conducted more than 500 interviews on the cellblocks before meeting with Miller and his top aides. The Defense Department memo recounting that meeting suggested that the once-cordial relationship had cooled.

Cassard, the Red Cross team leader, said the humanitarian group was deeply troubled that little progress had been made in four key areas: the lack of a legal system for the detainees, the continued use of steel cages, the "excessive use of isolation" and the lack of "repatriation" for the detainees.

"The ICRC feels that interrogators have too much control over the basic needs of detainees. That the interrogators attempted to control the detainees through use of isolation," the memo said. "Mr. Cassard stated that the interrogators have total control of the level of isolation in which detainees were kept; the level of comfort items detainees can receive; and also the access of basic needs to the detainees."

Miller bristled at the comments, telling the Red Cross representatives that interrogation techniques were not their concern. "There is no issue with the interrogation methods. The focus of the ICRC should be the level of humane detention being upheld, not the interrogation methods," the memo said.

Cassard replied that those methods and the lengths of interrogations were coercive and having a "cumulative effect" on the mental health of the detainees. Cassard also said that the steel cages, coupled with the maximum-security nature of the facility and the isolation techniques, constituted harsh treatment. He said interrogators were putting detainees into isolation holds for 30 days at a time for refusing to cooperate, an apparent violation of international law.

Miller denied the assertion. He said detainees were never put into isolation cells for failing to cooperate. He said those cells were used to punish those who failed to follow prison rules or had assaulted guards. He said only he had the authority to order isolation, and he "is careful not to exceed 30 [days] unless a detainee has committed a serious breach of the disciplinary rules."

Cassard then said he had been told that interrogators at the facility were gaining access to the medical files of the detainees and using the information to develop their interrogation plans. "This is a breach of confidentiality between a physician and a patient," Cassard said, according to the memo.

Miller denied the allegation, demanding that Cassard provide proof.

"Miller asked the ICRC to confirm their facts with regard to the medical records issue," the memo said.

Cassard shot back.

"Mr. Cassard raised a concern that MG Miller was not taking the discussion seriously," the memo said. "Miller explained that he was taking the discussion seriously, that he respected the work and opinions of the ICRC. He also asked the ICRC team to respect his opinions."

Cassard also criticized Miller for expanding a section of the prison called Camp Echo, a collection of isolation huts. Cassard said he was "shocked" to see more of the huts going up and called conditions at the camp "extremely harsh" with "very strict interrogations."

Miller called Camp Echo an "appropriate facility" and said it was designed to hold disciplinary cases and detainees scheduled to be tried before military commissions. He said the secluded nature of the camp permitted "detainees to have private conversations with their attorneys," the memo said. Miller added: "There are currently very few detainees in Camp Echo and they are there for serious assaults against MPs."

The chief of the Red Cross in North America, Christophe Girod, concluded the meeting by saying that the detainees should have visitation rights and that the open-ended detentions were "very hard" on the captives. "Mr. Girod stated that after two years it is time for ICRC and the U.S. to put everything on the table and make some real policy changes."

Miller said changes were underway.

"Miller asked that the ICRC respect the fact that some detainees here are very high risk, very dangerous and must be treated as such," the memo said.

On Oct. 10, the day after the meeting, Girod issued a rare public criticism of the Guantanamo operation, noting "a worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number" of the detainees because of the uncertainty about their fate. "One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely."

He said he spoke out because negotiations with the Bush administration failed to produce results.

This February, the team members returned to Guantanamo and met with Miller for an update. The general told them they could have access to several detainees who were previously off-limits but not Tabarak, No. 760. "We are in the process of getting a medical summary of his record for you to see how he's doing," Miller told the delegation, according to a Feb. 2 memo. He also said that an Australian held in Guantanamo, David Hicks, who was charged last week with conspiracy to commit war crimes, was cleared to make phone calls.

"So far, he's made two, one to his father and the other to his mother," Miller said in February.

Miller also said that several juveniles being held at the base had been freed, and more than 200 detainees -- close to a third of those held at the base -- were cooperating with U.S. interrogators. Because of their cooperation, the general said, he was "opening up new recreations" as a reward.

Today, a Red Cross team is on the ground in Cuba, inspecting the base again and interviewing detainees. Williamson, the Red Cross spokeswoman, said the U.S. government has made numerous changes since the detention camp opened 29 months ago. Still, she said, concerns remain.

"Some of our concerns have been addressed, and others have not," Williamson said. "A key problem that hasn't changed at all is the lack of a legal framework to regulate and govern the detentions."

Research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.

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