Guantanamo -- A Holding Cell In War on Terror

By Scott Higham, Joe Stephens and Margot Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 2, 2004

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- The newest prison in the war on terrorism is a multi-winged $31 million complex of gray concrete and steel designed to hold 100 captives for years to come. It stands in stark contrast to the original detention camp here, a collection of chain-link cages used two years ago to hold suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters caught when their sanctuary in Afghanistan collapsed.

Next week, officials will gather at the U.S. Navy base on this parched crescent of land in the Caribbean to commemorate the opening of the new facility, known as Camp 5. The new building signals permanence. It also signifies a problem yet unsolved.

While U.S. officials continue to see this patch of scrub encircled by brilliant blue water as the perfect place to hold prisoners in a war seemingly without end, the facility has evolved into a prison of sorts for the administration. It was easy to get in, but it is proving vexingly difficult to get out.

Today, the government remains responsible for about 600 detainees at the base, half of whom Pentagon officials would send back if they could obtain proper security guarantees from foreign governments. One hundred forty-seven detainees have been returned to their home countries. Six of the 600 have been designated to stand trial before military tribunals. Many of the detainees have been in custody for two years. Only a handful have seen a lawyer, and two have been formally charged.

The open-ended detentions have been condemned by foreign governments and human rights groups and are now being weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by early summer. Some government advisers involved in the evolution of the prison camp are questioning the decision to indefinitely detain the men as enemy combatants, rather than classifying them as prisoners of war.

There are strains with close allies, including Britain. The Saudi government has carried complaints directly to President Bush and has grown frustrated by the lack of progress. "They are in a bind, and they don't know how to get out of it," said a senior Saudi official, who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

U.S. officials counter that they are making changes and releasing captives as quickly as possible, while trying to keep the world safe from terrorist attacks. "We freely admit we're learning this as we go along," said Paul W. Butler, who supervised detainee operations and is now a special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "There were no blueprints for this."

The tale of how the Pentagon reached this point is a chronicle of a cascading series of decisions, made on the fly in the face of tremendous pressure. It is a narrative marked by bold moves and false starts, psychological warfare between guards and inmates, threats and incentives, allegations of mistreatment and pleas from families whose loved ones have been gone for months or years without explanation.

Some of the released detainees contended they were treated harshly and forced to falsely confess. But those reports remain unconfirmed, and members of Congress who have visited the base praised the humaneness of the captives' treatment and the professionalism of the troops.

Much of what has happened at Guantanamo has been shrouded in government secrecy, with most of the prison off-limits, detainee interviews prohibited and the names of the captives kept confidential. The Washington Post spent three months examining "Gitmo," touring portions of the prison camp and interviewing the military officials in charge, U.S. and foreign diplomats, congressional staffers, administration advisers and others with firsthand knowledge of the prison camp.

Using news accounts and information from lawyers and Web sites, the newspaper also compiled the largest public list of detainee names, encompassing 370 out of the 745 or so men detained at the camp since January 2002. Most of the detainees identified by name come from countries where al Qaeda has its deepest roots: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. The largest contingent comes from the country that supplied most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers: Saudi Arabia.

Twenty-six days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States began bombing attacks in Afghanistan, whose Taliban government had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his followers. Soon, U.S. troops were rounding up hundreds of ragtag soldiers and suspected terrorists on the battlefield. Other captives were being turned over by Afghan warlords.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company