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December 16th, 2006 - Military Taking a Tougher Line With Detainees
By Tim Golden
New York Times
December 16, 2006
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Dec. 10 - As the first detainees began moving last week into Guantánamo’s 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.
“At this point, I just don’t see using that,” 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 military’s 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. “They’re all terrorists; they’re all enemy combatants,” Admiral Harris said in an interview.
He added, “I don’t think there is such a thing as a medium-security terrorist.”
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 “no longer enemy combatants.” 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 Harris’s 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 agency’s 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 Guantánamo’s operations.
Since spring 2004, the military’s 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, Guantánamo’s 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 prisoners’ 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 “restraint chairs” 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 “special attention” from him.
“If they want to do that, hook it up,” he said, apparently referring to the restraint chair system for force-feeding. “If that’s what you want to do, that’s your choice.”
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. “We have learned how committed they are, just how serious they are, and how dangerous they are,” 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.
“Camp 4 is an ideal planning ground for nefarious activity,” 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 “could have been” made, but said “it was certainly no accident” 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.
“They have thrown away the key and forgotten him even though he is spiraling down physically and psychologically,” Mr. Lahmar’s lawyer, Stephen H. Olesky, said.
Noting that a petition for relief on behalf of Mr. Lahmar has been before a federal appeals court for nearly two years, he added, “They know we do not have a judge to take this case to, so they can pile on the detainee.”
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.
External link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/16/washington/16gitmo.html