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Getting to Gitmo

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Editor’s Note: Local television news journalist Michael Jordan recently traveled to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with a crew from NBC affiliate WSAV-TV 3. Here Michael shares his experiences at the historic base and in the camps that house hundreds of detainees from the war on terror.

Every day, Communist and American soldiers stare each other down from tall towers on opposite sides of a no-man’s land. Razor wire and land mines stretch between them, marking the boundary between the American navy base at Guantanamo Bay and the rest of Cuba.

It is an uneasy peace, but one that has held steady since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The American presence in Guantanamo Bay actually dates back to 1898, when American troops seized control of Cuba from Spain during the Spanish-American War.

In 1903, the U.S. government signed a lease for Guantanamo that is still in effect today. Under the terms of that agreement, Washington pays Havana a little more than $4,000 per year for the use of the 45 square miles of land in southeastern Cuba. Castro refuses to cash the checks. The lease will remain in effect until both the Cuban and American governments agree it should end.

But the enemy outside Guantanamo Bay is not the only one guards at the base must contend with; there’s also an enemy within. Since January 2002, the United States military has been using Guantanamo Bay as a place to hold people detained in the War on Terror.

At present, more than 600 such detainees live in Guantanamo Bay. Most live in six-by-eight-foot cells in a sprawling facility named Camp Delta. Each detainee is provided with a Muslim holy book, clothing and linens, and a painted arrow pointing the way to Mecca, the direction devout Muslims face when they pray.

Within the camp are more agreeable communal living areas where cooperative detainees are allowed to sleep in multi-person bays and take their meals together outside. Camp Delta was opened in April 2002, replacing the more austere Camp X-Ray — a holdover from the mid-’90s, when large numbers of Haitian refugees were housed at Guantanamo Bay.

The American troops who comprise the Joint Task Force that runs Camp Delta live in spartan surroundings themselves. The soldiers sleep in pre-fabricated metal huts stretched out along a gravel road. Most of the troops are National Guardsmen called up from units scattered around the country.

While many complain of boredom in their daily lives at “Gitmo,” as they call Guantanamo Bay, they’re grateful for the air conditioning that makes the hot days and nights bearable.

“We don’t have to worry about bullets, sand fleas, or dust storms,” Camp America commandant Master Sergeant Joe Singley told me. “Compared to what our guys in the desert (of Iraq) have had to endure, these are like castles.”

Interestingly, Guantanamo is itself a desert environment. Palm trees in this portion of Cuba share space with tall cactus, and the landscape has been described by some Americans as “like Arizona with a beach.”

The American naval base sits astride a two-and-a-half-mile-wide bay, which splits the facility in half. Housing areas and an airfield are located on the leeward, or western, side.

On the windward, or eastern, side sits Camp Delta, where the detainees live, and Camp America, home to the hundreds of American troops who stand guard over the cells. Ferry boats carry troops, workers, and their families back and forth between the Windward and Leeward sides of the base.

Guantanamo Bay is almost entirely isolated from the outside world. The base is self-sufficient, using a desalinization plant to produce its drinking water and a power plant to generate electricity. But there are reminders of the reality that exists on the other side of the boundary: each morning, I listened to Communist radio broadcasts on the clock radio in my military hotel room.

Life for the detainees inside Camp Delta is predictable and routine. Meals are served at the same time every day, cooked to the specifications of the Muslim Halal diet. The Muslim call to prayer is broadcast at the appropriate time from speakers mounted throughout the facility.

While in some ways Delta is comparable to prisons back in the states, the mission is quite different.

“The one big difference is that we’re not the least bit interested in any rehabilitation,” said camp commander Col. Nelson Cannon. “We don’t do that here. The mission here is intelligence.”

The detainees meet regularly with interrogators in one-on-one sessions designed to glean information useful in the war on terror. While some of the men have been locked up here for upwards of two years, intelligence officials say they can still provide valuable information about the training, funding, and structure of Al Qaeda cells around the world.

All of the detainees are men, and virtually all were captured in Afghanistan. They are natives of more than forty nations, and speak no less than seventeen languages. I was not allowed to speak or interact in any way with any of the detainees during my time in Guantanamo Bay.

No prisoners from Iraq have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay, but the controversy surrounding the abuse of American prisoners in Iraq is already spilling over to the detainees on this side of the Atlantic.

Two British detainees recently released from Guantanamo claim they, too, were subjected to inhumane treatment. The men say they were stripped naked and subjected to loud music, strobe lights, and freezing temperatures. They also say American interrogators forced them to make videotaped confessions.

The Pentagon acknowledges that there have been at least 30 documented suicide attempts of detainees at Guantanamo. The International Red Cross has delivered a scathing report to the Pentagon criticizing the way the detainees are treated at Guantanamo Bay.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who ran the U.S. detention camps at Guantanamo before taking over the now-notorious camps in Iraq, has said, “There were errors made. We have corrected them.”

My visit to Camp Delta took place long before the Iraqi prisoner abuse story hit the airwaves, but at that time the camp’s commander denied any detainees were being abused, saying, “our focus is to run a safe, secure, and humane detention operation.”

The American effort at Guantanamo Bay is about to enter an important new phase. Six detainees are now in special holding cells awaiting trial before a special military commission. A large room in the naval base headquarters building has been converted into a sort of courtroom, wired with equipment to send video and audio feeds to media around the world. There the six men will be defended by U.S. military lawyers appointed to take their cases.

I asked one of their commanders, who wished not to be identified by name, if she thought American military lawyers could whole-heartedly defend people accused of planning or playing a role in attacks on America.

“It is your duty to zealously defend your clients,” she replied, “no matter who they are.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether it is legal for the detainees to be tried in a military court without any access to appeals in civilian American courts. At issue is whether or not the detainees are actually on American soil and entitled to Constitutional protection when they’re on the base in Guantanamo Bay.

During the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban-American missile crisis, Cuban authorities feared an onslaught of American troops surging from Guantanamo. These days, it’s the Americans who fear invasion by Cubans — immigrants, not troops.

The Cuban Frontier Brigade soldiers on one side of the 17-mile fenceline work hard to keep their countrymen from slipping across the line. But eighty-five percent of the American base is in plain view from the Cuban mountains that ring the bay, and the sight of American cars, American-style homes, and the only McDonald’s in Cuba is too alluring a temptation for some Cubans to avoid.

One man is said to have crossed the Cuban minefields and eluded sentries on both sides of the fence no less than seven times.

But unless he can prove a credible fear of persecution in Cuba, every Cuban who makes it across to the American side is sent right back to the welcoming arms of the Communist government.

That exchange takes place during monthly meetings between the American base commander, Navy Captain Les McCoy, and his counterpart, Cuban Frontier Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Solar Hernandez. The two gather in small buildings on either side of the Northeast Gate, the only passageway between the base and Communist Cuba.

“It’s almost like an out-of-body experience when I’m talking to him,” McCoy told me. “And half the time I’m sitting there and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to this guy.’”

McCoy describes the monthly meetings as “cordial,” and says the talks focus on logistical issues like moving ships through the bay, coordinating firefighting exercises, or the repatriation of Cubans who enter the base.

McCoy says Gen. Hernandez has assured him Cuba will return to U.S. custody any detainees who should happen to escape and flee from Guantanamo Bay.

Only four other people pass through the Northeast Gate on a regular basis. They are elderly Cuban men, the last holdovers from a pre-Castro Cuban workforce that used to number in the thousands. Every morning, these men —now in their mid-seventies — cross through the gate into the base to go to work. Every night, they cross back into Communist Cuba and climb into a van for the ride home.

Since the trade embargo makes it illegal for the U.S. government to wire any money into Communist Cuba, these men serve as mules, carrying thousands of dollars in pension benefits to retired colleagues still living in Castro’s country.

No one knows how the money will cross the line once these men are gone. It’s just another legal conundrum among the many that define life in Guantanamo Bay.

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