29 June 2005
General Says Guantanamo Vital for Gathering Terror Intelligence
Detention center provides humane treatment, facilitates religious worship
By Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr.
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Since the detention center at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base opened in January 2002, intelligence officers have conducted 28,000 interrogations of enemy combatants, and there have been 10 reported cases of abuse over the same period, says the current commander of the facility.
The Guantanamo detention operations reflect a mix of efforts to gather vital intelligence on terrorism and insurgency efforts and to provide humane treatment for the enemy combatants being detained at center, Camp Delta, says Army Brigadier General Jay Hood, who commands Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which operates the center.
In the 41 months it has been open, there have been no detainee deaths or suicides, Hood told the House Armed Services Committee June 29. There have been a few attempted suicides though, he said.
The House Armed Services Committee opened hearings to examine detention operations as part of a follow-up to a recent visit to the center by 16 members of the committee on June 25-26. The committee also sought answers to how detainees are being treated.
"What we saw was not 'the gulag of our times,'" House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (Republican of California) said. "Instead we saw a world-class detention facility where detainees representing a threat to our national security are well-fed, given access to top-notch medical facilities and provided an opportunity to obtain legal representation, which, incidentally, uniformed soldiers under the Geneva Conventions are not given."
The Pentagon says there are 520 detainees held at the detention center, representing about 40 countries and speaking at least 17 languages.
"Guantanamo will be kept open," Hunter said. "The facility is keeping known terrorists off the battlefield while providing us with valuable intelligence."
Missouri Representative Ike Skelton, the committee's senior Democrat, said he applauded efforts by U.S. personnel to make the treatment of detainees as humane as possible, but he said what concerned him the most is the impact of allegations of abuse.
Some in the Arab world are using these allegations to recruit terrorists to fight against the United States and others, he said.
"We must not provide this recruiting tool for those who would fight us. For the sake of our moral leadership and the international credibility that our past wartime accountability efforts have enjoyed, an independent commission is essential to stem the accusations of doubts of Muslims around the world," Skelton said.
He also called for all of the detainees' cases to be heard in federal courts.
In committee testimony, Hood said that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to every detainee through regular visits and that more than 1,000 U.S. and international journalists also have visited the detention center, along with more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress.
Key to efforts to thwart terrorism, intelligence officers have been learning how terrorist organizations recruit, train, launder money and plan operations, Hood said.
During committee questioning, Army Command Sergeant Major Anthony Mendez, the ranking noncommissioned officer at the detention facility, said that every detainee is given a Quran, which is displayed in each detainee's cell above eye level.
"That serves ... two main purposes: one, to ensure that the detainees are not hiding any contraband; and two, as the guards go in the cells to conduct a cell search, they won't inadvertently touch the Quran by bumping it with a mattress or whatever they use as they search the cell," he said.
Prayers are called five times a day, Mendez said. Every detainee is given a prayer cap, prayer beads and prayer oil. Some detainees are given traditional prayer rugs, depending on the level of compliance, he said. Every effort is made to make certain nothing interferes with the call to prayers, he said.
"Every location that a detainee occupies has an arrow that will depict [the direction to] Mecca, whether it's in their individual cells or on the recreation yard," he said.
Navy Commander Cary Ostergaard, who is commander of the detainee hospital, said a military doctor gives every detainee a full medical examination upon arrival at Guantanamo. The detainees are also given dental and mental health screening examinations, and tests for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis, he said.
Detainees are given a tetanus immunization and an influenza immunization in season, he said.
"Our most common complaints are intestinal, respiratory and musculoskeletal," he told the committee.
Ostergaard said they have developed several medical surveillance programs to monitor periodically the weight and nutrition of the detainees.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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