- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003


GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - More than 600 al Qaeda and Taliban suspects imprisoned here are being interrogated by “Tiger Teams” during sessions that last as long as 16 hours, military officials say.

Forty such four- and five-member teams — consisting of Defense Department personnel, law-enforcement interrogators, a linguist and an analyst — work inside Camp Delta.

The barbed-wire-ringed series of cellblocks is home to the detainees, all of whom are Muslim men, representing 44 countries and speaking 17 languages. While the identities of the men have been kept secret, military officials here say all were arrested in Afghanistan.

The 105-year history of this unique base — the only U.S. military installation in a communist country — has been peppered with such major events of international consequence as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.

Construction of Camp Delta since September 11 again turned the world’s eyes toward here to watch the development of a new situation, one plagued by questions about the legal status of those held in the war on terror, exacerbated by charges of misconduct by officials working with the prisoners.

But Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who heads U.S. efforts to obtain intelligence from the detainees, told The Washington Times that information being gleaned from them has been “extremely valuable.”

He vigorously dismissed the notion that recent charges leveled against some who worked in or closely with the Tiger Teams suggested the presence of a “fifth column,” or organized group within the prison camp seeking to aid the detainees.

“There’s absolutely zero possibility … with the Tiger Teams that there’s any of that,” said the general, a native Texan who has been in the military for more than 25 years.

‘Golden threads’

Gen. Miller said that even as the majority of Guantanamo prisoners have been isolated from the changing world for nearly two years, they continue to be a treasure trove of intelligence.

“There are three different kinds of intelligence for which we interrogate: tactical, operational and strategic,” he said.

Tactical is the lowest level, used to lay a base from which deeper interrogation can be built. It consists of outlining when an individual was captured, what kind of weapon he had, how many people he was working with and what precisely they were doing.

Tactical intelligence “decays pretty quickly,” Gen. Miller said. “It’s not stale, but it’s dated.” Much of it, he said, already had been pulled from a batch of roughly 20 prisoners who arrived at Guantanamo at the end of November. The new prisoners, he said, “already had been held and interrogated for approximately one to three months” before arriving at Guantanamo.

The second level of intelligence is operational, such as how a terrorist organization is organized and recruited, how it maintains itself and who its contacts are, Gen. Miller said.

“We look for golden threads,” he said. “What’s the commonality that goes through this entire process?”

Military officials have revealed little about the information gathered from the detainees and Gen. Miller declined to discuss specifics.

However, reporters and photographers at Guantanamo recently were allowed inside the small wooden huts once used as interrogation chambers on the grounds of Camp X-Ray, a now-closed compound of barbed-wire and chain-link fences used to detain the al Qaeda and Taliban suspects before the more permanent Camp Delta was built.

In one hut, a blue duffel bag full of orange uniforms and leather restraining belts appeared to have been left behind on a table. Affixed to the plywood floor below the table was a steel hook.

On the wall of another room were scrawled in black marker such words as “coward,” “proud,” and “liar” in English and what appeared to be Arabic. In one room, reporters saw maps of Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Gen. Miller said that the third type of intelligence drawn from interrogations is strategic intelligence. Suggesting it is the most relevant to current interrogations, he called strategic “the final level … how terrorists or terrorist organizations fund themselves, how does money move.”

All of the information goes into the intelligence community’s databases to facilitate further and more effective interrogations, he said.

“We send information up. They send information down.”

With the information being passed along the government’s intelligence food chain, one might be able to draw parallels between the types of details sought from prisoners here and subsequent arrests made in the war on terrorism.

Collection of operational intelligence and strategic intelligence, such as how a terror cell gets money and how that money moves around, could produce leads for authorities on the trail of suspects in the United States and abroad.

Translator and detainee

Military officials at Guantanamo stress repeatedly that no individual, interrogator, prison guard, translator, Muslim chaplain or otherwise is allowed one-on-one access to the detainees.

“The security here is very, very tight,” Gen. Miller said. “If we produce enormously valuable information, the enemy would like to get that information. So we work very hard to reduce the opportunity for the enemy to penetrate.”

The National Guard and Army Reserve units from seven states and the Virgin Islands that guard Camp Delta live in Camp America, a series of more than 80 wooden and metal structures called “sea huts,” clustered just outside the prison.

Translators and others involved in interrogations live in apartments around the naval base, such as Tierra Kay Housing, a series of town houses on a road about two miles outside a vehicle-security checkpoint separating the prison camp from the rest of the base.

Civilian translator Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, one of the four persons charged in the espionage probe at Guantanamo, lived somewhere on the base beyond the checkpoint.

He was on leave from Guantanamo at the end of September, returning from a visit with family in his native Egypt, when authorities arrested him in Boston. Charged with lying to a federal agent, Mr. Mehalba is said to have had in his possession a list of names mentioned during interrogation sessions.

His was the third arrest in a spy probe that began in July with the arrest of Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi, a Syrian native, who also worked as a translator at Guantanamo. The airman had pleaded not guilty to 20 charges, including four counts of espionage and one of aiding the enemy.

The attorney representing the airman announced yesterday that the Air Force had dropped three of the spying charges. He still faces 17 other counts, including spying, disobeying orders, making false official statements and mishandling classified documents.

Airman al Halabi’s case was publicized after the arrest early in September of Army Capt. James J. Yee, 35, a Chinese-American who had served as an Islamic chaplain at Guantanamo.

No charge of espionage has been filed against Capt. Yee, a West Point graduate and convert to Islam. An unusual twist in his case last month, however, led the Army to charge him with storing pornography on a government computer and committing adultery. The adultery charge, a rarely pursued offense of the military code, stems from his relations with a female naval officer at Guantanamo.

A military source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Capt. Yee initially “got in trouble” with base commanders because he was acting too sympathetically toward the Muslims held at the prison camp rather than focusing on his duties as a religious adviser to prison guards.

The highest-ranking official charged in the espionage probe is Col. Jack D. Farr, an Army reservist who was posted to Guantanamo as an intelligence officer and is charged with wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security container.

Camp dynamics

A tour of Camp Delta on a hillside about 150 yards from the shoreline, revealed four separate detention areas ranging in levels of security from highest to lowest.

Reporters, strictly warned against interacting with detainees during the tour, saw two bearded prisoners in orange cloth outfits gently kicking a soccer ball around a fenced-in cemented yard at the end of one of the higher-security cellblocks.

The cells in the higher-security areas are 8 feet deep by 7 feet wide, and surrounded by steel mesh. Each has a floor-style flush toilet and sink. Inscribed on the metal bed affixed to the wall in each cell is an arrow pointing in the direction of the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

The arrows are among the steps military officials said were taken to avoid infringing on the religious beliefs and practices of the detainees. The detainees also have access to books, which are wheeled on a cart past their cells.

Along with the Koran, a base official said books on such topics as “poetry, fiction, animals, geology, nature, art and music” are available. While not commenting on the specific books offered, officials said at least one detainee has requested a copy of the Bible to read and the request was granted.

Detainee placement in and movement among the varying security levels depends on the degree of his cooperation with interrogators, military officials said. A “creature comfort” incentive program exists to motivate prisoners to cooperate: extra time in an exercise yard, special meals or graduation to a cellblock of a lower security level.

Cooperative prisoners are moved gradually from the highest security areas to the lowest, where there are picnic tables, a volleyball court and the men are allowed to mingle and pray with each other in white uniforms rather than the standard-issue orange suits.

The movement from higher to lower security areas is “an operational decision based on intelligence gathering,” Gen. Miller said. “We move a fairly significant number of people around. It’s intended to encourage cooperation and it’s very successful.

“We work this every day on camp dynamics, where detainees are, where we should move them, how to best help us prepare the environment for positive interrogations,” he said.

Asked whether the incentive program gets recalibrated, the general answered, “every day” and explained how some prisoners recently were moved from lowest security to highest despite cooperating with interrogators and providing “enormously valuable” intelligence.

“It was a decision on our part to help accelerate the intelligence-gathering process,” he said.


Tension on the fence line

U.S. control of Guantanamo Bay began in 1898 when Marines seized it during the Spanish-American War. Cuba achieved independence five years later and the United States entered into a lease with Cuban leaders under an annual fee of $2,000 in gold.

A 1934 treaty renewed the lease, granting the United States access unless the lease is terminated with the consent of both countries. The treaty also gave Cuba access through the 2.5-mile-wide bay on the island’s southeastern edge.

Arguments over the 45 square miles of bay and the land around it began with the 1959 communist revolution in Cuba and the rise of Fidel Castro. U.S. officials say Mr. Castro has cashed only one rent check during his 44 years in office.

Tension along the 17.4-mile fence line between the base and Cuba rose during the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and boiled over in 1962, when President Kennedy announced the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Tensions still exist, even if only as a shadow of what they once were.

“There’s still some mooning that goes on,” said one U.S. soldier of the interaction between Cubans manning guard towers on their side of the line and Americans manning towers on the U.S. side.

In 1991, more than 34,000 Haitian refugees were held temporarily at the naval base. Most recently, with U.S. forces arresting terrorism suspects in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, Guantanamo was picked to house a new sort of prison.

A philosophical question

The manner in which the United States handles the detainees and what ultimately it decides will be their fate will determine “how future U.S. prisoners of war will be treated,” says retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, a 28-year veteran and former judge advocate general of the Navy.

“There is a need for us to provide these prisoners with some sort of due process as a demonstration of the way we think prisoners like this ought to be treated,” said Adm. Hutson, now dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.

The question of what to do with terror suspects is more “philosophical than legal or constitutional,” he said. “History’s going to judge us by our deeds.”

The Bush administration refers to the prisoners as the worst of the worst arrested in the war on terrorism. When the first batches were brought here early in 2002, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters to “remember that these are very, very dangerous people.”

However, the ongoing interrogation of the prisoners and their legal status as indefinitely held “enemy combatants” has prompted criticism from some lawyers and human rights groups.

The issue has surfaced in U.S. federal courts. On Thursday, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the prisoners should have access to lawyers and the U.S. court system.

Another challenge brought in the District of Columbia has gone to the Supreme Court.

“Those held at Guantanamo are not convicted terrorists; they’re suspected,” said Kristine Huskey, a Washington lawyer hired by the families of 12 Kuwaiti citizens among those held at Guantanamo.

On Nov. 10, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal filed by attorneys for the Kuwaitis, nine Britons and two Australians among those detained.

The lawyers initially sued the Bush administration in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking basic legal rights for the detainees, including an order of habeas corpus to determine if they were lawfully imprisoned.

But the D.C. court ruled it lacked jurisdiction, saying the detainees technically were being held outside the sovereign territory of the United States and the jurisdiction of its judicial system.

Should the Supreme Court grant the appeal to the ruling, the case will be sent back to the D.C. court, which will then consider whether the detainees are being held illegally.

However, the issue may be moot by then, as the Bush administration appears on track to try the detainees by military tribunals held secretly here.

President Bush so far has designated six of the detainees to be eligible for a tribunal. As of Thursday, the Pentagon had said two of those to be tried have been provided with military lawyers.

The president personally made his position on the fate of the detainees clear during a joint news conference in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month.

“These are illegal, noncombatants, picked up off of a battlefield,” Mr. Bush said. “They are being treated in a humane fashion. And we are sorting through them on a case-by-case basis. There is a court procedure in place that will allow them to be tried in fair fashion.”

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