Lawmaker Tours Become Part of Guantanamo Life
Saturday, August 6, 2005
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- As part of a major Pentagon public relations offensive, dozens of lawmakers are being flown to the maximum-security units here for VIP tours conducted by generals who portray the cells as safe and even comfortable places for suspected terrorists to spend their days.
The visits, organized by the military in a bid to blunt the impact of numerous reports of inhumane treatment and exotic interrogation techniques, have become such a routine part of life at this spartan, sprawling base that signs on the open doors of two maximum-security cells say "Tour Cell."
One aim of the PR offensive is to head off calls from lawmakers of both parties for an independent commission -- structured like the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- to look into the conditions and activities at the Guantanamo Bay prison. The administration is also trying to fend off proposed Senate GOP legislation to ensure humane treatment of prisoners and to restrict interrogation tactics.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they are drawn to the prison out of curiosity and concern about the physical conditions and treatment of prisoners. House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who led a small delegation Monday, said close scrutiny is essential to improving the United States' image abroad and "winning the hearts and minds of the modern Arab world."
The lawmakers take the three-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base aboard military aircraft that offer catered meals. The tours include visits to cells for both medium- and high-security detainees, a meal in the mess hall where troops are fed, and a classified briefing by the commanding general. The members of Congress are also invited to listen in on prisoner interrogations.
Fifty-one senators and House members have made the trek in the past three months, 32 of them in the past 30 days, according to the military. Guantanamo Bay officials said they do not have an estimate of the cost of the congressional inspections.
"More people go to Guantanamo than they do to most international resorts," quipped Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who took part in the Monday trip. "It was a professional tour -- a well-conducted tour. But you would expect that, given the number of members of Congress and senators and reporters that tour Guantanamo."
A four-star officer -- Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who as commander of the U.S. Southern Command is responsible for military operations in the Caribbean and in Central and South America -- cleared his calendar and flew down from Miami to show the lawmakers around for six hours.
As Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) stepped off a shuttle boat, Craddock reached out and carried her tote bag. Craddock said he thinks the tours will "dispel the notion that this is a dark secret down here."
"We want folks to see what we're doing," Craddock said. "There's a difference between perception and reality. The hype, the concern about this technique or that technique is over. It was done for a specific purpose, and it was effective."
After a mess-hall lunch, the group was ushered into a recreation yard that has a series of one-man cages with concrete floors and a chain-link roof. The concrete was emblazoned with a black arrow that pointed the way to Mecca for Muslim prayers. "Makkah 12793 KM," the notation said.
The congressional visitors were not given an opportunity to talk to any inmates.