Library Livens Up Guantanamo
By Lesley Clark
November 1, 2006
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba | Agatha Christie may have slipped off the best-seller list, but she's still popular among the several hundred terrorist suspects imprisoned at this remote island detention camp.
A library in a drab double-wide - its stacks of books available in 16 languages, including Arabic and Chinese - is among the perks U.S. military officials promote as they seek to put a friendlier face on the controversial camp, which has been the subject of international protests over the detention and treatment of detainees.
The library, however, is off-limits to the detainees, but military officials say that hasn't slackened their literary interests. A military officer/librarian makes the rounds to the cells of more than 400 men who are housed in small, stark cellblocks ringed by fences topped by barbed wire.
"If we're late, they're bugging the guards," one librarian said of the detainees, whose tastes are said to favor Arabic poets and British mysteries. Harry Potter is also said to be a favorite.
Despite President Bush's acknowledgment last spring that the camp's existence gives ammunition to U.S. critics, work continues apace on a $37 million maximum-security facility modeled after a U.S. prison, and so does an aggressive public relations effort aimed at portraying the detention center as a critical element in the administration's war against terrorism.
"We're keeping enemy combatants off the battlefield," said Brig. Gen. Edward Leacock, the camp's second in command and the assistant adjutant general of the Maryland Army National Guard. "We're doing it right, and we're doing it professionally."
Most of the detainees, however, haven't even been charged with any crimes, and reports of mistreatment and torture have dogged the facility since it opened months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to house what the administration says are dangerous men.
Three detainees hanged themselves in June. The military described their act as coordinated to prod the United States into closing the camp, but critics attributed the suicides to a sense of profound hopelessness.
Those critics, including attorneys who routinely visit with detainees, have described an island gulag of desolation and despair. They point out that the detainees are held in drab cagelike cells and issued thin mattresses, prison garb and little else.
To counter the image, the military says it welcomes scrutiny, though The Associated Press had to go to court to get the detainees' names and camp officials refuse to give an exact number of the detainees there at any one time.
Leacock said the detention camp is "the most transparent facility in the world."
He said that it's hosted foreign and congressional delegations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and, since 2002, has led nearly 1,000 tours for reporters and photographers from 40 countries.
The highly structured familiarization tour includes interviews with guards and tours of the library, the cellblocks and the medical and dental clinics.
There's an opportunity to sample the food the detainees are served (4,200 calories a day). Food has triggered controversy since the camp opened, with two detainees on a hunger strike for more than a year. The military notes that the detainees are served Islamic-approved halal meals.
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with detainees fasting during the daytime, the captives were served post-sunset meals and midnight meals. They also received portions of baklava, a traditional dessert.
There's a glimpse of an interrogation room - complete with a La-Z-Boy recliner and Persian-style rug.
No interviews with detainees or interrogators are allowed.
Contrary to allegations of torture, Leacock said that "rapport building" is the only interrogation technique "generally used" at the camp.