Military Taking a Tougher Line With Detainees


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 16, 2006

Military Taking a Tougher Line With Detainees

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba, Dec. 10 ‹ As the first detainees began moving last week 
into Guantánamo¹s modern, new detention facility, Camp 6, the military guard 
commander stood beneath the high, concrete walls of the compound, looking out on
a fenced-in athletic yard.

The yard, where the detainees were to have played soccer and other sports, had 
been part of a plan to ease the conditions under which more than 400 men are 
imprisoned here, nearly all of them without having been charged. But that plan 
has changed.

³At this point, I just don¹t see using that,² the guard commander, Col. Wade F. 
Dennis, said.

After two years in which the military sought to manage terrorism suspects at 
Guantánamo with incentives for good behavior, steady improvements in their 
living conditions and even dialogue with prison leaders, the authorities here 
have clamped down decisively in recent months.

Security procedures have been tightened. Group activities have been scaled back.
With the retrofitting of Camp 6 and the near-emptying of another showcase camp 
for compliant prisoners, military officials said about three-fourths of the 
detainees would eventually be held in maximum-security cells. That is a stark 
departure from earlier plans to hold a similar number in medium-security units.

Officials said the shift reflected the military¹s analysis ‹ after a series of 
hunger strikes, a riot last May and three suicides by detainees in June ‹ that 
earlier efforts to ease restrictions on the detainees had gone too far.

The commander of the Guantánamo task force, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., said 
the tougher approach also reflected the changing nature of the prison 
population, and his conviction that all of those now held here are dangerous 
men. ³They¹re all terrorists; they¹re all enemy combatants,² Admiral Harris said
in an interview.

He added, ³I don¹t think there is such a thing as a medium-security terrorist.²

Admiral Harris, who took command on March 31, referred in part to the recent 
departure from Guantánamo of the last of 38 men whom the military had classified
since early 2005 as ³no longer enemy combatants.² Still, about 100 others who 
had been cleared by the military for transfer or release remained here while the
State Department tried to arrange their repatriation.

[Shortly after Admiral Harris¹s remarks, another 15 detainees were sent home to 
Saudi Arabia, where they were promptly returned to their families.]

The detainee population here has also been reshaped by the arrival in September 
of 14 terror suspects, including the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks,
who had been held by the Central Intelligence Agency in secret prisons overseas.

United States officials said these so-called high-value suspects were being held
apart from the rest of the Guantánamo prisoners, at a secret detention facility 
supervised by C.I.A. officers. The 14 have been visited twice by representatives
of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but have not yet been 
interrogated by military intelligence officials, these officials said.

Next year, after the Defense Department finishes rewriting rules for the 
military tribunals that the Bush administration first established in November 
2001, the intelligence agency¹s prisoners are to be charged with war crimes. The
timetable for their prosecutions remains uncertain.

Military officials said they would continue to try to improve conditions at the 
prison to the extent that security considerations allowed. They said they have 
abandoned special cell blocks for discipline and segregation, so that prisoners 
who violate rules are now punished simply by the withdrawal of various 
privileges in their regular cells. The authorities have also standardized rules 
for exercise, allowing each detainee at least two hours a day, they said.

Nonetheless, the tightening of security at the detention center represents a 
significant shift in Guantánamo¹s operations.

Since spring 2004, the military¹s handling of the detainees had been heavily 
influenced by the political and diplomatic pressures that grew out of the Abu 
Ghraib scandal and other cases of prisoner abuse. At the same time, Guantánamo¹s
focus was shifting from interrogations to the long-term detention of men who, 
for the most part, would never be charged with any crime.

With little guidance from Washington, senior officers here began in 2005 to edge
back toward the traditional Geneva Convention rules for prisoner treatment that 
President Bush had disavowed after 9/11 for the fight against terrorism, 
military officials said. Military officers began listening more attentively to 
the prisoners¹ complaints, and eventually met a few times with a council of 
detainee leaders.

Those talks were quickly aborted in August 2005. The hunger strikes were 
effectively broken last January, when the military began strapping detainees 
into padded ³restraint chairs² to force-feed them through stomach tubes.

But those protests gave way to several drug overdoses in May and the hangings in
June of three prisoners ‹ all of whom had previously been hunger strikers.

The current Guantánamo commanders eschewed any criticism of their predecessors. 
But they were blunt in laying out a different approach.

Asked about his discussions with prisoners, Colonel Dennis said he basically had
none. As for the handful of detainees who have continued to wage hunger strikes,
including three who were being force-fed last week, he said they would get no 
³special attention² from him.

³If they want to do that, hook it up,² he said, apparently referring to the 
restraint chair system for force-feeding. ³If that¹s what you want to do, that¹s
your choice.²

Admiral Harris said he had ordered a hardening of the security posture on the 
basis of new insights into the threat that the detainees pose. ³We have learned 
how committed they are, just how serious they are, and how dangerous they are,² 
he said.

Several military officials said Admiral Harris took over the Guantánamo task 
force with a greater concern about security, and soon ordered his aides to draw 
up plans to deal with hostage-takings and other emergencies.

He and Colonel Dennis both asserted that Camp 4 ‹ where dozens of detainees 
rioted during an aggressive search of their quarters last May ‹ represented a 
particular danger.

Admiral Harris said detainees there had used the freedom of the camp to train 
one another in terrorist tactics, and in 2004 plotted unsuccessfully to seize a 
food truck and use it to run over guards.

³Camp 4 is an ideal planning ground for nefarious activity,² he said.

But according to several recent interviews with military personnel who served 
here at the time, the riot in May did not transpire precisely as military 
officials had described it. The disturbance culminated with what the military 
had said was an attack by detainees on members of a Quick Reaction Force that 
burst into one barracks to stop a detainee who appeared to be hanging himself.

But officers familiar with the event said the force stormed in after a guard saw
a detainee merely holding up a sheet and that his intentions were ambiguous. A 
guard also mistakenly broadcast the radio code for multiple suicide attempts, 
heightening the alarm, the officers said.

Admiral Harris conceded that an error ³could have been² made, but said ³it was 
certainly no accident² that the prisoners had slicked the floor of their 
quarters with soapy water and excrement, and fought the guards with makeshift 
weapons. He said he believed the guards acted properly.

The May 18 search took place after at least two prisoners were found unconscious
from overdoses of hoarded drugs. The detainees who attacked the guards were 
known as especially religious, and had been angered in the past by searches of 
their Korans.

After the three suicides in June, Camp 6 was substantially reconfigured. 
Staircases and catwalks were fenced in so that detainees could not jump from 
them to attack guards or try to kill themselves. Shower stalls were built higher
so they could not be used for hangings. Exercise yards were divided up into a 
series of one-man pens.

The detainees will still look out the small windows of their computer-controlled
cell doors to see the stainless steel picnic tables where they were once 
supposed to have shared their meals; they just will not be able to sit at those 
tables with other detainees.

Military officials confirmed that since the suicides in June, three detainees 
who were part of the council that negotiated with military commanders had been 
kept isolated from nearly all other prisoners in Camp Echo, a collection of 
bungalows where detainees often see their lawyers.

Those detainees include Shaker Aamer, a Saudi resident of Britain who is accused
of having ties to Al Qaeda; Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi electrical engineer who 
was charged earlier with plotting to make bombs for Qaeda forces in Afghanistan;
and Saber Lahmar, an Algerian religious scholar seized in Bosnia.

Lawyers for Mr. Aamer and Mr. Lahmar said that they had been alone for most of 
that time, and that the isolation was causing them psychological damage.

³They have thrown away the key and forgotten him even though he is spiraling 
down physically and psychologically,² Mr. Lahmar¹s lawyer, Stephen H. Olesky, 

Noting that a petition for relief on behalf of Mr. Lahmar has been before a 
federal appeals court for nearly two years, he added, ³They know we do not have 
a judge to take this case to, so they can pile on the detainee.²

Colonel Dennis, the commander of the detention group, said Mr. Lahmar was being 
allowed to exercise and had access to any medical attention he required.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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