Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
One of the lightning rods of controversy throughout the War on Terror has been the United States military prison and interrogation camp located at Guantanamo Bay. One man with particular insight on this ongoing story is New York Times investigative reporter Tim Golden, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Under the sponsorship of the Times and War News Radio, Mr Golden spoke last night at Bond Memorial Hall, giving a talk entitled “Inside Guantanamo.”
Golden began by posing two questions that succinctly summarize the crux of the issue over the Guantanamo Bay prison. First, “How many of you would like to see Guantanamo Bay closed?” Well over half of the audience raised their hands at this. Then: “How many of you know what to do with the suspected or convicted terrorists held there?” Only a few, if any, audience members responded to this. The Bush administration and the military establishment, Golden said, feel much the same way.
For the next hour, Golden illuminated why this may be so, narrating the trajectory of the detention camp. It once served largely as place to house Cuban and Haitian refugees; the golf course is still scarred from the presence of large numbers of Haitians in the Aristide era. Those working the base are primarily a “red-state” working class force, but possess the unique character of the 1990s peacetime military; a number of officers have masters’ degrees or Ph.Ds.
Since the War on Terror began, it has existed in what Golden called a “netherworld of secrecy and transparency.” Reporters are given considerable access to the camp, which the Pentagon sees as the public face of a more secret international prison system, and so the media offers an opportunity to “get the message out that [the detainees] aren’t being tortured, are well-fed, get three bottles of water a day” and are generally well-treated. With much of the controversy in recent years, whether at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, or elsewhere dealing with the question of unlawful torture, this has helped to facilitate an image shift for a place once “very focused on interrogation to [one emphasizing] long-term detention of those too dangerous to let go.”
In fact, the allegations of torture are exaggerated, Golden argues. While there has been evidence of practices that may be cruel and unusual, much of it seems to be a factor of inexperienced interrogators than overwhelming malice, as in the case of Mohamed al-Kahtani, who was subjected to the presence of female soldiers, inflated rubber gloves touching his face, forced standing for the Star-Spangled Banner, and audio recordings of Christina Aguilera.
Some of the less desirable treatment fell off after the installation of Brig. Gen. Jay Hood as commander in 2004, who curtailed some interrogation techniques and worked for better prisoner treatment. They began following the Geneva Code more closely, despite indications from the Bush administration that the Code was not applicable to terror detainees. Hood’s tenure was sullied by allegations of Qu’ran desecration, and Col. Mike Bumgarner was installed. He adopted a problem solving approach which featured a dialogue with the detainees, once spending hours talking to one prisoner named Shaker Aamer, who “became a person” to Bumgarner after the conversation. One of Aamer’s parting words to the colonel, “you must have really pissed someone off to get sent down here” is suggestive of how difficult the camp is to run, Golden noted. After a series of bargains led to the formation of a 6-man prisoner council and a period of relative tranquility, the peace eventually collapsed into new hunger strikes which were only stopped with force feeding.
The suicide of three detainees as a protest last year prompted a new crackdown and the installation of yet another commander, Admiral Harry Harris, who indicated the new tone by saying there is “no such thing as a medium security terrorist.” Efforts to prosecute more detainees or return them to prisons in their home countries have renewed in what Golden sees as a effort to take the heat off of a military installation that is both a liability and a necessity. Indeed, many counter-terror experts believe that despite intelligence that has been gained at the detention center, it may be detrimental overall, since many terrorists use it as a recruitment tool. A number of formally filed complaints and efforts to weed out those who do not require the special treatment of Guantanamo Bay.
From Mr Golden’s unique perspective on a site which has garnered so much negative attention throughout the War on Terror, a much more complex picture emerges of a camp with a troubled history yet still retaining some sense of mission. The essential thing to remember, Golden indicates, is that “torture and Guantanamo Bay are things that are a lot closer in the public imagination than in reality.”