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My Trip to Guantanamo: It Must Be Closed

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I went to the prison at Guantanamo Bay on June 16 with a small bi-partisan group of House members. It was my third trip, and I came away thinking that those Congressional visits may not be helpful in generating support for closing the facility. (That conclusion, by the way, has nothing to do with the true fact that I fell on a step and fractured my foot while at the facility.) The problem is that a one day guided tour can easily leave the wrong impression.

What one sees at Guantanamo is what appears at first blush to be simply an efficiently managed prison, the mission of which as described by the congenial and impressive Rear Admiral David Thomas, Commander of Joint Task Force-GTMO, is the "safe, transparent, legal and humane treatment of detainees." He answered all our questions, fed us lunch, and took us on a tour of the facility. This man is clearly a strong and popular leader who is doing his job and doing it well.

Admiral Thomas took us on the grand tour. One of the must-sees is Camp 4 where prisoners live in barrack-style units, 5 to a unit (though built to accommodate 10) who are "free" to move in and out of an outdoor yard 20 hours per day. Camp 5 and 6 are medium and maximum (not counting the high value detainees) and visitors are shown the small individual cells and are told that these prisoners are given up to 4 hours per day out in the yard with other prisoners. Camps 4, 5, 6 are comfortably air-conditioned.

There is barely a dissonant note, unless of course you remind yourself of the 229 detainees currently held at Guantanamo none has been convicted of anything. And for the vast majority, no charges. None. No trials. No due process. NOTHING.

This is hard to remember as you take the tour and see men (Muslim men) in prison garb in a prison setting. It's especially challenging when the group of more than a dozen Camp 4 prisoners who are on a "Rec Strike" -- they refuse to come inside from the yard -- yell obscenities at the tourists as we pass by. It's much easier to think of them as "bad guys", which some of them most probably are, than possibly innocent men that were arrested after a sizable bounty was paid to the person that fingered them in Afghanistan.

Ask a few more questions, and other troubling facts come to light. There was another suicide two weeks ago, this time in Camp 3. No details. Still under investigation. Guards are supposed to check every three minutes on prisoners in Camps 5, 6, and every one minute in Camp 3 where 9 prisoners are in solitary confinement. Those detainees are described as the real troublemakers at Gitmo, the ones that disrupt the order of the prison. It was here, in defiance of the regulations, that the suicide took place.

In response to another of my long list of questions, provided to me by a habeas corpus lawyer friend of mine, Gary Isaac, we learn that 29 prisoners are hunger strikers, and 26 of those are being force fed -- 3 of that group, "for years." Prisoners are considered to be on a hunger strike if they eat less than 1/3 of a meal for nine meals in a row. The International Committee of the Red Cross, representatives of which visit the prisoners every three months, opposes force-feeding at the stage at which it begins at Guantanamo.

Admiral Thomas, to his credit, asked to be fed through a tube down his nose, for a week, to assure himself that the procedure met the "humane" standard. He pointed out that his father, who recently died of Alzheimer's, was fed that way for a long time. I asked to see the chair in which the detainees are restrained while being fed, (Thomas rejected the term "force fed") and it looked less than benign to me. Thomas said he was not about to let someone die of starvation. Remember now: not convicted of ANYTHING. Apparently, regardless of which camp they are in, many prisoners are not happy campers. Rec strikes; hunger strikes; suicide.

Decisions about placement of prisoners are made entirely based on their level of compliance within the facility. It has nothing to do with alleged terrorist activities or crimes, since no one -- you got it -- no one has been convicted of anything. It is easy to think that prisoners in Camp 5 or 6 are a greater danger to the United States of America because of their stricter level of confinement. This has nothing to do with it. A prisoner who is non-compliant, perhaps assaulting a guard, is placed in a higher security Camp. I get this. But what it means is that this place where people are held without charges (don't forget), incarceration takes on a life of its own.

Then there are the Uighur's, members of an oppressed Muslim minority group living in Western China, an area they call East Turkestan. The U.S. government has detained 22 Uighur's at Guantanamo. On August 24, 2005, the Washington Post reported that 15 of them were determined to be "No longer enemy combatants" but were still incarcerated and still shackled to the floor. As of June 22, 2009, thirteen Uighur men remain incarcerated. Two years ago, an Administrative Review Board declared all but one to be "approved for release." According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon had previously determined, reportedly as early as 2003, that the Uyghur's could be released. That would be six years ago!

I saw the Uighur compound from the outside. Surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and fences, the Uighur's are "free" to move about an area the floor space of what looked like an average Chicago school playground. An added attraction that I hadn't perceived, according to a young and well-meaning soldier, was "the beautiful ocean view." I'm not kidding.

I went to Gitmo the first time in the summer of 2003. Most of the prisoners were still in open air cages -- literally. They looked like a larger version of something you would put your dog in. The only amenity was a tarp over the top to protect against overhead sun and rain. Many prisoners had been there since early 2002 when the prison first opened. Major General Geoffrey Miller was the commander at the time. In a sprightly, upbeat manner, he explained that everyone there was a "Bad Guy". "How do you know?" I asked. "Because," he said, "we have foolproof screening process in Afghanistan," never mentioning the bounties that were paid for them. Donald Rumsfeld called them "the worst of the worst."

It is now well known that prisoner abuse at Guantanamo occurred under Miller's watch, though he showed us carpeted interrogation rooms with 2-way mirrors where prisoners were offered snacks for information. Miller, having done such a swell job, was transferred to Iraq where he made recommendations for improving intelligence-gathering at Abu Ghraib. Everyone knows how that turned out. Miller ordered the arrest of James Yee, the Army Captain who served as a chaplain for Muslims prisoners at Gitmo. Yee was part of the entourage that showed me around in 2003. Miller accused Yee of stealing classified documents and smuggling them out of the prison -- charges that were later dropped, and today there is no Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo. Geoffrey Miller is now retired -- without consequences.

I came limping back to Washington on my fractured ankle more convinced than ever that Guantanamo must be closed. As long as it isn't, it remains a stain on the reputation of our country. President Obama understands this. Closing Guantanamo was one of his very first decisions. The President has created a task force that is making recommendations about what to do with each and every prisoner individually. We then need to apply our well-tested Constitution, rule of law, due process -- our system of justice that is the envy of the world -- to these prisoners. Some of them likely committed terrorist acts. Others may have been detained by mistake. We need to know and to act with all the legal and moral integrity our country aspires to. I look forward to the task force report.

The Congress voted to require a detailed plan from the President before any funds will be appropriated to close Gitmo. The demagogues are raging every day about not allowing terrorists to set foot in the United States for any purpose. I haven't recommended to my colleagues that they visit the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It's just too easy to feel comfortable there, riding the boat through beautiful waters from the leeward to the windward side of the U.S. base, and taking in the beautiful ocean view seen from the prison where no one has been convicted of anything.