By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
For up to four hours a day, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, can sit outside in the Caribbean sun and chat through a chain-link fence with the detainee in the neighboring exercise yard at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mohammed can also use that time to visit a media room to watch movies of his choice, read newspapers and books, or play handheld electronic games. He and other detainees have access to elliptical machines and stationary bikes.
At Guantanamo, such recreational activities interrupt an otherwise bleak existence, according to a Pentagon report of conditions at Camp 7, which houses 16 high-value detainees. But even those privileges may soon vanish.
The Justice Department has begun to hint in court filings that at least some of the defendants in the Sept. 11, 2001, case, as well as other prominent suspects, will be transferred to federal custody in the United States. While lawmakers and activist groups have been consumed with a debate over such a move, little attention has been paid to the conditions that Mohammed and other high-value detainees would face in the United States.
And those conditions, it turns out, would be vastly more draconian than they are at Guantanamo Bay.
"Where demanded by justice and national security, we will seek to transfer some detainees to the same type of facilities in which we hold all manner of dangerous and violent criminals within our borders," President Obama said in a speech at the National Archives in May. "Bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists."
Based on what is known about restrictions in the country's highest-security federal prisons, Mohammed and other terrorism suspects would face profound isolation in the United States.
If sent to a facility such as the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., they would be sealed off for 23 hours a day in cells with four-inch-wide windows and concrete furniture. If they behave, and are allowed an hour's exercise each day in a tiny yard, they will do so alone. They will have little or no human contact except with prison officials. And the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside group with access to Camp 7, will no longer have contact with them.
"You will die with a whimper," U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema told Zacarias Moussaoui, before the Sept. 11 conspirator was taken to the supermax facility in Florence to serve a life sentence. "You will never again get a chance to speak."
The 490-bed prison, formally known as the Administrative Maximum Facility, holds some of the country's most infamous prisoners, including Mohammed's nephew Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski; FBI agent-turned-Soviet mole Robert P. Hanssen; and Terry L. Nichols, who was convicted in the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building. Thirty-three international terrorists are held there.
Advocates for and against closing the Guantanamo Bay facility say the specter of hard time in Florence or elsewhere in the federal prison system is tangential to larger issues involved in Obama's decision to shut down the military prison.
The detention center at Guantanamo Bay "now provides the highest standard of security and humane detention of terrorists consistent with the standards of the Geneva Conventions," said Kirk S. Lippold, who served as the commander of the USS Cole and is now a senior military fellow at Military Families United, an advocacy group. "Unless the administration plans on spending millions of taxpayer dollars on drastically changing the conditions at the supermax facility, then moving the detainees to a prison like Florence would result in less humane conditions for detainees and less security for all Americans."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting military defense lawyers at Guantanamo Bay, said its principal goal is to get detainees tried in federal court, where the group believes it has a better chance of preventing a death sentence in the event of any conviction.
"Protections in the federal system are vastly superior," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "The absence of due process at Guantanamo makes it more of a black hole than Florence."
Although the Pentagon says that it has abided by the Geneva Conventions at Camp 7, Romero said he remains unconvinced that conditions there are as liberal as officials suggest. Attorneys for some of the detainees at Camp 7 have expressed concern about their clients' mental health -- describing in a court filing, for instance, the desire of one detainee to plead guilty and receive the death penalty as the manifestation of his "depression, hopelessness and despair."
The experience of Moussaoui, who was tried in federal court in Alexandria, offers an idea of the conditions Guantanamo detainees might face if transferred to the United States.
Moussaoui spent 23 hours a day alone in an 80-square-foot cell, according to officials at the Alexandria jail where he was held. The cell had a cement floor, bare white walls, a toilet and a mattress atop concrete. An entire unit of six cells and a common area was sealed off just for him. He was monitored on a closed-circuit security camera, and he never saw other inmates.
He spent most of his time quietly reading the Koran and praying on the floor on a blanket, officials said. One hour each day, he was escorted from his cell for a shower and exercise. If he was moved even one floor inside the jail -- always in shackles -- both of those floors were locked down.
Two terrorism suspects in Britain have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to stop their extradition to the United States, arguing that conditions at Florence, where they assume they would be sent, are so severe that they amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Various studies have found that the isolation experienced at supermax prisons can cause or exacerbate mental illness.
At Florence, inmates deemed high-security risks are in almost permanent lockdown and have a small black-and-white television, a radio and books to pass the time.
Bernard Kleinman, a lawyer who represented Yousef, said his client told him he rarely exercised at the prison because he refused to submit to the body-cavity search required every time he returned to his cell. When he was moved, he was always shackled in leg irons and black-box handcuffs.
Attempts by prisoners and their attorneys to challenge in court the conditions of confinement in Florence have repeatedly failed.
Said Kleinman, who has represented Yousef since 1998: "It's effectively solitary confinement for life."
Meanwhile, at Guantanamo, some officials argue that the military should create more liberal conditions for detainees.
The Pentagon review of conditions there, led by Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, recommended that Camp 7 detainees should be given opportunities for group prayer with three or more fellow prisoners. He also said recreation should be expanded to groups of three or more, with rotating partners.
It is unclear whether Walsh's recommendations were implemented. Military officials at Guantanamo Bay, despite repeated requests, did not provide information on current conditions at Camp 7.
Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.