Touring Guantanamo A Last Excursion to the War on Terror's Prison

The weeds are already growing rampant at the notorious "Camp X-Ray," and President-elect Barack Obama plans to shut down the entire detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Now the Pentagon is inviting journalists to tour the camp one last time.

By in Guantanamo


One would imagine a trip to the world's best-known and most notorious prison could be an unpleasant experience. Everyone knows the horror stories from Guantanamo: how the prisoners were chained on the flight to Cuba, and how they arrived at the camp half-frozen, their eyes blindfolded and completely disoriented. They didn't know where they were at the time, and many of them are still there today, in the prison where the United States keeps its terror suspects.

A special group recently embarked on a trip to Guantanamo that would prove to be significantly more comfortable. The group met at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington in the early morning hours, where a North American Airlines charter flight was already waiting. The destination, with the airport code NBW, well removed from the rule of US constitutional law, is known simply as GTMO in military slang. The boarding pass was first of many amusing souvenirs of the trip.

Its actual purpose was the 9/11 trial. But in addition to terrorism experts, this time Pentagon spokesman Jeffrey D. Gordon had also invited a group of international GTMO novices who had not yet reported on the tribunal. Journalists from Brazil, Japan, Dubai, France, Spain, Israel and Saudi Arabia took advantage of what Gordon was calling the "last chance to see the camp."

Media trips to GTMO are not unusual. The trip, occurring only weeks after Nov. 4 -- the day Barack Obama, who had promised to close the camp, won the US presidential election --, seemed like a last, desperate PR effort. With a full program, including a visit by the families of selected 9/11 victims, the Pentagon is fighting for the camp's reputation, a reputation it lost a long time ago.

On board the Boeing 757 to Guantanamo, it was hard not to think of the CIA abductions to the detainee camp there, although nothing on the aircraft resembled those flights in the least. Instead of leg shackles there was legroom, instead of sedatives a turkey sandwich, and instead of dark hoods headphones were handed out so that the passengers could watch the film "Hancock," starring Will Smith.

"Welcome to our flight to Guantanamo Bay," a crewmember announced, "I hope you enjoy it."

A Dream Vacation

Why GTMO is so popular among soldiers becomes obvious quickly after arrival. Instead of barbed wire and prison towers, the visitor encounters a typical American small town, including the only government-owned McDonald's restaurant, which sells subsidized hamburgers, an open-air movie theater, a golf course and various sailing and diving schools.

At GTMO, there is nothing to prevent soldiers from turning their six-month tours into a dream vacation. Instead of signs showing the terror alert levels, omnipresent in the United States, the signs at Guantanamo show the current air and water temperature. Swimming, sailing and diving are possible all year long. Another popular feature among the soldiers is the fact that even alcohol is allowed on the base.

At the end of their workday, soldiers can drink a cold beer at O'Kelly's, an Irish pub, or play bingo next door. The officers' club offers somewhat more refined dining. The Jerk House restaurant serves up spicy food, while the waterside Tikki Bar is the ideal place for CIA officers to meet for a drink after interrogations. But our trip was not about vacation, even though Commander Gordon, usually wearing shorts and a T-shirt, raved about the visits to the beach. The reporters were more interested in the camp tours, which, for space reasons, were limited to 10 people at a time. Like high-school students on a class outing, respectable journalists fought over the so-called "trip behind the wires" -- into Camp Delta, the notorious detainee camp.

A few signatures were required before the tours could begin. A five-page list of what could not be photographed or written about was handed out. Unmanned watchtowers or the ocean behind the detainee camp, for instance, are taboo. The form ends with a note that military censors are permitted to delete all images on cameras and, if necessary, the entire contents of a laptop's hard drive.

'Modern and Humane'

The tour began at the camp that made GTMO world-famous: Camp X-Ray, a symbol of the unjust system the United States installed after Sept. 11, 2001. It was there that the first terrorism suspects arriving from Afghanistan in late 2001 were imprisoned, housed in small, covered wire cages, less than two meters square, with no toilets.

The images from Camp X-Ray were seen around the world, pictures of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, kneeling, blindfolded, on the ground. Today the camp, which was abandoned in 2002, seems like a large dog kennel. The grass is knee-high and the fences are overgrown. Our minder preferred to talk about local snakes instead of prisoners. The man was sweating. It was still unbearably hot, even in December.

The US Army would like to have demolished Camp X-Ray as quickly as possible, but a US judge ordered that it be left intact, in case it is needed as evidence for future prisoner abuse trials. The interrogation cells were scrubbed clean, and even electric outlets and light switches were removed. The only reminders of 2002 are the graffiti left behind by the soldiers, including skulls and phrases like "warriors of the night."

Camp Delta, where detainees are now kept, is only a 10-minute drive from Camp X-Ray, passing a golf course along the way. A sign at the gate announces the "value of the week." This week's value for the soldiers stationed there was "respect." The guards checked our passes individually. The driver instructed us not to take any pictures of the guards.

Compliant, Cooperative or Resistant

The commander of the 2,200 soldiers, Admiral David Thomas, calls the new facilities the "most modern and humane prison tract in the world." Camp Delta is divided into six sections. Sections I to III are reserved for compliant and cooperative, "Camp IV" for somewhat cooperative and the two remaining sections for resistant prisoners.

There are also several special camps. "High value detainees" -- high-ranking terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- are interned in "Camp VII" (even the name is classified). The camp's location is a national security secret. "Camp Ecco," recently set up for attorney visits, and "Camp Iguana," where the most harmless suspects are kept, are less secret.

Camp IV, as presented by the prison warden, a smiling Navy commander, seems more like a reform school than a prison, complete with Foosball tables, fitness equipment and chess boards. Pictures of Afghanistan's mountains and the blue mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif hang on the walls in the small, air-conditioned classrooms. The shackles under the metal tables are the only reminder of the true purpose of the place.

The classes, offered in several languages -- English, Dari and Pashtu --, are treated as "intellectual stimulation," so that the prisoners can have something to do and are not made to feel useless, as the commander says.

The prison uniforms are folded carefully on the six beds in each cell. The uniforms are color-coded: orange for resistant, beige for cooperative and white for compliant inmates.

The prison, which Amnesty International has classified as a gulag, already seems museum-like. There are hardly any prisoners in sight. Built for more than 600 suspects, the camp is half-empty with its remaining 255 inmates. The silhouettes of a few men crouching outside on the ground are visible behind fences. It doesn't take long before the officials make it more than clear that taking pictures is absolutely forbidden.

Camp V offers a brief reminder of reality. A unit from the Quick Response Force (QRF), dressed in black combat uniforms and outfitted with plastic riot shields, helmets and knee guards, enters the building. The prisoners refer to the units as "ninjas," because of their violent missions. But on this day, as the press officer explains, they are merely here for a training mission.

Shortly before the group's departure, civilian "security officials" delete all photos taken of the "ninjas." Publishing the photos, as they say, would "jeopardize national security." When pressed, the warden admits that action is taken at least twice a week to deal with "uncooperative prisoners." Their share of all inmates, about 20 percent, has not decreased.

It is ghostly quiet in the building itself. Camps V and VI were modeled on high-security prisons in the United States, one in Indiana and the other in Michigan. Only 40 percent of the cells are occupied, and everything is sparkling clean. The commander shows off the "community rooms," furnished with tables and benches. For security purposes, the prisoners are also chained to the floor in these rooms.

The Geneva Conventions in Seven Languages

In the hallways, the US Army demonstrates its cynical attitude toward international criticism of Guantanamo. The Geneva Conventions -- basic rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, which the administration of US President George W. Bush has deliberately violated -- are displayed in seven languages. Even the address of the US Supreme Court, which did not confirm the rights of the detainees until years after the camp was first opened, is displayed.

The tour for journalists at Guantanamo is a standard military tour. Attorneys, human rights activists, politicians -- all have seen precisely the same facilities. Everything we see in Guantanamo has already been written about by Jeffrey Toobin, in the April 2008 issue of the New Yorker. Only one thing has changed: The number of prisoners on hunger strike has increased to 18, up from 10 when Toobin visited.

When we leave Camp VI, questions about the future of the camp can no longer be avoided. The press spokeswoman has already mentioned several times that the soldiers "do not wish to answer" such political questions. At least the commander expresses himself, albeit indirectly.

"It would be a shame," he says, "if this prison, which satisfies the strictest requirements and is completely secure, were left empty."

SPIEGEL ONLINE reporter Matthias Gebauer has been observing the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay since they began, and visited the detention facility last week.

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