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Pistachios at Guantanamo

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, July 23, 2007

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- Via a monitoring camera, I saw a snippet of an interrogation session here one day last week inside one of the high-security complexes where foreign detainees are held. No faces were visible, but I glimpsed the jingling bracelets, open-toed sandals and skirts of two young women, who were seated in soft leather chairs around a table with a man in prison garb. One woman was the interrogator; the other was a translator. The means of persuasion, apart from the evident feminine charm, was a generous bag of pistachios -- a usually unavailable treat.

Yes, I was on a tour organized by the Pentagon; but no, the scene I witnessed was not a staged departure from a norm of pressure and pain. Rather, it was a sign of what five years of experience have taught Guantanamo's interrogators about the most effective means of collecting intelligence from the "enemy combatants" captured in the fight against al-Qaeda. "Most of the productivity we see over time," said a top intelligence official, "comes from the milk of human kindness."

That's not a message often heard from administration officials in Washington, who continue to insist that the CIA requires authority to use "alternative procedures" -- sleep deprivation, temperature extremes and other harsh methods -- to extract information from captured al-Qaeda operatives. President Bush, who issued an executive order on Friday that would reauthorize many of those techniques, claims that such treatment has broken the resistance of militants trained to resist standard questioning and yielded intelligence that has helped prevent terrorist attacks.

Guantanamo tried the harsh approach during the first year detainees from Afghanistan were held here, in 2002; the result was a disciplinary and diplomatic disaster that has made the camp into an enduring global symbol of American human rights abuses. After prisoners here were stripped and hooded, sexually humiliated, and threatened with guard dogs, the practices spread to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they led to the horrific photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison.

Now Guantanamo offers a different model. Interrogations of the 360 remaining prisoners still go on, at the rate of some 100 sessions a week. But for the past year they have been conducted in accordance with a new Army manual on interrogations that complies with the Geneva Conventions and specifically bans the abusive methods introduced here by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Humiliation, threats and stress positions have been replaced with painstaking relationship building and positive incentives.

According to the officials charged with conducting interrogations and gathering intelligence -- under the ground rules of my tour they can't be directly identified -- the results have never been better. "You can't impress these people with harshness," said one senior official, noting that some of the Guantanamo inmates survived the infamous shipping containers in which one Afghan warlord suffocated prisoners. The most effective interrogators, he added, "are those who approach the subject in a friendly and businesslike manner, who have studied the subject thoroughly, and who over time earn respect that makes it harder for the subject to evade the questions."

How is that done? Detainees being worked by the staff of 21 interrogators are invited to leave their small cells for private rooms typically equipped with televisions and comfortable chairs. About five times out of seven, one official told me, the prisoners are asked no questions; instead, pistachios, Subway and McDonald's sandwiches, and other food treats are served, and the session consists of light conversation or the watching of a movie. Special treats are offered to those who cooperate: One prisoner, I was told, has become an avid reader of the Harry Potter books and was offered access to the latest installment in exchange for responsiveness.

Officials here say that even after years of detention -- all but a handful of the prisoners have been in the camp at least three years -- Guantanamo is still a source of intelligence. There are detainees who are experts in roadside bombs, for example, or in remote parts of Afghanistan where NATO forces are fighting. Some only recently began talking, after years of suasion.

The question is whether the value of the intelligence -- and of keeping potential fighters off the battlefield -- is worth the continuing harm of a detention system that most of the world sees as illegitimate. The administration's own actions suggest not: With painful slowness, Guantanamo is winding down. Fifteen Saudi prisoners were sent home last week; 80 other detainees have been cleared for transfer. One senior official said that he believed only 50 to 75 prisoners here cannot be either sent home or put on trial. It's hard to believe this sprawling, sun-baked camp, which even now does more harm than good in the fight against global jihadism, will house them once the president who created it leaves office.

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