By Tyler Pager and Paige Leskin
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A group of men in orange jumpsuits are kneeling. Their hands are shackled and their mouths are covered with light blue surgical masks. Military guards stand watch.
It is one of the iconic images of Guantanamo Bay.
Though that photo dates back 13 years, it and similar pictures of shackled, orange jumpsuit-clad prisoners dominate public perception of the controversial detention center established in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to hold the world’s most dangerous suspected terrorists.
But military officials say the images no longer represent the experiences of the majority of detainees at Guantanamo.
The detainees in these photos were among the first to arrive at Guantanamo in January 2002, only 15 days after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced they would be held there.
However, with no formal detention center in place, the military was forced to adapt pre-existing holding cells, which came to be known as Camp X-Ray.
The detainees only spent about 90 days at Camp X-Ray until they were moved to more permanent facilities — a short chapter in the 13-year saga of Guantanamo’s detention operations. The newly constructed facilities, Camp Delta, opened at the end of April 2002.
Military officials say the majority of detainees now stay in communal living areas, with many of them spending up to 22 hours outside of their cells reading books, watching TV and playing sports. But, advocacy groups argue these privileges are often taken away and detainees can still be subjected to punishments, including force-feeding during hunger strikes.
When Afghan Northern Alliance and Pakistani forces began capturing suspected terrorists shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States needed somewhere to put them.
There was not much time. Options were limited.
The George W. Bush administration wanted a place outside U.S. legal jurisdiction so detainees would not be given rights under the American legal system, said Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In addition to being a Navy base, Guantanamo was chosen because it already had jail cells from the 1990s when the U.S. detained criminal Haitian and Cuban refugees. Officials also considered Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, and other secret prisons.
Wilkerson said the decision-making process was “absolutely” rushed.
“It’s an absurd situation in many respects, but it was ideal for extraterritoriality, for not having a judicial code that directly applied and for keeping people in, as Donald Rumsfeld intimated on one occasion, ‘indefinite detention,'” Wilkerson said.
He said there was no long-term strategic plan for the future of the detention operations. In fact, Wilkerson remembers William Howard Taft IV, Powell’s legal adviser at the State Department, asking the Defense Department, “What’s final disposition?” Their response, he said, was, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
The first days
Brandon Neely arrived at Guantanamo just five days before the detainees. An Army military police officer, he only received two days’ notice before deploying to work at the detention center.
“We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know what to expect when we got there,” Neely said. “That night when we showed up, they were still building the fences together themselves.”
Many of those images depicted the detainees’ arrival and the laborious check-in process, Neely said. Detainees were processed one-by-one and many spent hours kneeling on the ground waiting.
Neely, who left the Army after five years of service, worked in Camp X-Ray for the entire time detainees stayed there. He said the current living conditions “are probably a thousand times better” than they were in 2002.
“Anything’s better than using the restroom and pooping in a bucket,” he said. “That’s the way it was at Camp X-Ray. They had one bucket they used for water and one bucket they used the restroom in.”
Murat Kurnaz remembers sitting in his small cell made of chain-link fencing, which provided little cover from the scorching Caribbean temperatures. Kurnaz said he spent 24 hours a day inside the cell except for when he was taken out to be interrogated. During those periods, Kurnaz said the interrogators often hit him in the face.
“Sometimes it was just two or three hours, but they changed it up,” he said. “Sometimes it took eight hours, 10 hours.”
Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who lived in Germany until he went to study Islam in Pakistan, was taken to Guantanamo in early 2002 and was not released until August 2006, though documents show U.S. officials knew early on he was never involved in any terrorist activities.
“I would say it was harsh, but my conclusion at the time was that it was not inappropriate,” said Taft, Powell’s legal adviser, of Camp X-Ray. “It was within what was lawful for treating people of their character and potential danger.”
Thirteen years later
These days, many detainees can spend up to 22 hours outside their cells and can choose how to occupy that time, from watching the World Cup or a soap opera to taking art classes, military official said.
Since the detainees arrived 13 years ago, the detention facilities have undergone significant changes. The operation is now run by more than 2,000 military personnel.
“They take meals together, they pray together, they recreate (sic) together,” Gresback said. “It’s all about continuing to stimulate their minds … so that they stay highly compliant. We found that when their minds are not engaged is an opportunity for them to be mischievous.”
Camp 6 detainees can play sports on the facility’s half-sized soccer field and can take classes on subjects such as life skills and foreign languages, Gresback said. They can also request reading material from the library, which consists of around 19,000 books in 15 different languages. Detainees also are allowed to video-conference with their family members and legal teams.
Changes to their living conditions happened gradually with guidance from the detention center’s strategic cultural consultant, who is only referred to as “Zak” for his protection. He acts as the “middleman” between the military and detainees, focusing on their cultural and religious needs.
While he does not have the power to make final decisions, he communicates with the military about what the detainees want and need.
“Things have changed over the years here in Guantanamo,” Zak said. “Over the years we have learned how to manage the detainees and what can we give them, not give them, in order to have them follow their rules.”
“Allowing them that freedom to choose what we give them, and to attend class or not, have allowed them to think for themselves and start questioning what they have been told in earlier years,” Zak said.
While some detainees are offered more privileges, they aren’t guaranteed, said Cori Crider, a lawyer and director at Reprieve, a non-profit human rights organization.
“The environment in Camp 6 is more or less restrictive at the whim of the detaining authority,” she said.
She cited an incident in the spring of 2013 during the height of a mass hunger strike. Soldiers raided Camp 6 and forced detainees to stay in their cells, which were stripped of “absolutely everything,” including books, artwork and attorney-client mail, she said.
“They will do anything to disrupt camp operations, including splashing the guards with feces, vomit, urine … any bodily fluid you could think of,” Gresback said. “Our guard force are constantly verbally assaulted — gender, race, religion — constant berating by the detainees, all the while maintaining a professionalism.”
Guards function under “standard operating procedures,” which dictate that they are not allowed to retaliate and as Guantanamo is not a correctional facility, the military cannot add time onto their sentences, he said.
A handful of detainees, deemed “high value,” are housed in Camp 7, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an alleged co-conspirator of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Gresback would not comment on operations at Camp 7.
Updating the image
As images from Guantanamo in 2002 continue to appear alongside recent articles about the detention center, officials are striving for transparency to convey to the public that the situation has changed since more than a decade ago.
One way the military is transparent is through the access it gives to media to report on the island, Gresback said. When in Guantanamo, reporters are allowed to cover military commissions and can tour the detention center when trials are not in session.
The military does prohibit reporters from speaking with or photographing current detainees.
Joseph Hickman, a former Army National Guardsman who worked at Camp Delta, said that the detention center now is better than the “cruel place” it was when he was deployed to Guantanamo in 2006. However, he said the access the military provides to journalists is not enough to get that image across to the American people.
“You’re limited with the photographs you have, so what are you going to show? If you’re safe, humane, legal and transparent, then give some new updated photos of what these guys are doing now and how they’re treated,” he said. “If they would be more transparent with what they’re doing, it would make things a lot easier.”
Crider, of Reprieve, said the Defense Department’s attitudes toward releasing photos of Guantanamo have changed since the detainees first arrived.
“In those early years, the Defense Department was perfectly happy to put out images of suffering prisoners in hoods and goggles and kneeling in the gravel of Camp X-Ray,” she said. “Those were the days immediately after 9/11 and everybody felt able to beat the chest so that they would be seen to be doing something about quote ‘terrorism.'”
These days, Crider said, Defense Department officials are trying to have more control over the information and images from Guantanamo because they feel “a little bit less proud about the way people are treated.”
Zak, the cultural adviser, said he, too, had those early images in mind when he arrived at Guantanamo in 2005.
Today, by allowing media interviews and answering questions, the military shows it values transparency, Zak said, but the responsibility is on reporters and other visitors to portray the “true picture” of the detention center.
“We are doing the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons,” he said. “I mean the world is suffering from terrorism. The world is suffering from bad thoughts. The world is suffering from not having the correct information. Yes, I say knowledge is power, but having the wrong information could be a dangerous power.”