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In Guantanamo, Have We Created Something We Can't Close?

The detention camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold suspects in the war on terror.
Michelle Shephard
The detention camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold suspects in the war on terror.

The crisis at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp keeps growing in size and intensity. According to the military's own count, 100 of the 166 men held in the prison there are now on hunger strike, and the 27 most in danger of dying are being force-fed.

Last month, guards had to forcibly subdue a camp where even the most cooperative detainees are held.

The hunger strike was triggered by a February search of inmates' Qurans, though the details are hotly disputed. What's remarkable, however, is that everyone — including detainees, lawyers and the military — agrees that the real reason for the unrest is simply the frustration that the camp has stayed open so long.

I can't see how we're going to get out of this.

A Question Of Morality

If the hunger strike is intended to draw attention, it's working. After months of silence on the issue, President Obama renewed the pledge he made four years ago to close the prison.

"It is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in Guantanamo," he said at a press conference last month. "I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo."

There hasn't been any will in Congress to do that, however. No one — neither Republican nor Democrat — wants detainees kept in their state. Polls also show a majority of Americans don't want Guantanamo to close. And even though 86 prisoners have recently been cleared for release, nobody seems to be leaving.

Lt. Col. Stuart Couch was assigned as a prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. For him, the job was also personal. Before becoming a lawyer, he'd been a pilot in the Marine Corps. He then went to law school, and his friend Michael Horrocks got a job with United Airlines.

Horrocks was the co-pilot for United Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.

Couch's feelings about his mission began to change during his first trip to Guantanamo in October 2003. Following the sound of heavy metal music, he saw a detainee shackled in a dark room with a strobe light at one end.

Demonstrators dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees protest against the facility, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January.
Evan Vucci / AP
Demonstrators dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees protest against the facility, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

"The music was deafening," Couch tells weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath, "There were these two civilian men there, and I asked what was going on and they shut the door in my face. When I saw that scene, it was the first inkling that I had that there was a problem with what was going on at Guantanamo."

Couch was told the technique was approved; he took that to mean it was policy-driven.

As a prosecutor, he says, he knew the manner in which prisoner statements were taken was going to be essential.

"So when I saw what I saw," he says, "I thought we might have problems with the evidence we have against these detainees."

Couch says he had reservations from a moral perspective, as well. He took his concerns to his superiors, in particular regarding the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee since 2002. Couch says Slahi had been subjected to advanced interrogation techniques to get information.

"Knowing the information I did, I had an ethical obligation to provide the information ... to any defense attorney that would represent Slahi in the future," Couch says, "so that he could avail himself of the protections of the U.N. torture convention.

"Ultimately for me, though, from a moral perspective as a Christian, I just felt what had been done to this man was reprehensible and for that reason I would have nothing else to do with the prosecution," he says.

Couch abandoned the case in May 2004; Slahi still has not had his day in court.

Balancing Justice With Security

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg says she feels that the prison represents a significant shift in American values. Rosenberg has been reporting on the detention camp since it was established in 2002.

"Before Sept. 11, I never imagined that we would be talking about holding people forever who we couldn't charge, for whom there was either insufficient evidence to bring them to trial or for whom the evidence was so tainted that we couldn't bring them to trial," Rosenberg tells Rath.

In the critical days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Alberto Gonzales was in President Bush's inner circle as his attorney general. Asked whether the U.S. jeopardized its ability to convict its enemies in a rush to extract secrets from them, Gonzales says Bush understood the consequences.

"But as far as he was concerned," Gonzales tells Rath, "that was the balance that we were going to strike in order to make sure that not another life here in America would be at jeopardy."

Gonzales says he still believes, as he did in 2001, that the detention center at Guantanamo serves an essential purpose, and there is no immediate need to shut it down.

"I fundamentally disagree with President Obama on this," he says. "I think that if you go visit Guantanamo ... I'd have to say that today the facility is much better — in terms of the protections [and] amenities given to the detainees there — than what you might find in state and local facilities in this country."

Gonzales says he doesn't understand what President Obama and people like Couch mean when they say the prison is inconsistent with American values.

"It's totally consistent with international law, it's totally consistent with our Constitution [and] it's totally consistent with our tradition and our practice," he says. "People still may not like it ... but it is lawful."

Gonzales does say that Guantanamo was never meant to be a long-term solution to the issue of detention. He says he hopes the Obama administration will be more successful than the Bush administration was at finding an alternative solution.

Even if Obama succeeds in closing the camp, he's been less clear about addressing the root cause of the current crisis: the hopelessness of the inmates' indefinite detention.

Rosenberg says she thinks we'll have the prison in Guantanamo, or the same thing under a different name, forever.

"I can't see how we're going to get out of this," she says. "I imagine that down the road, they'll find a way to get some more people home, but I don't see how they're going to be able to, if not empty the cells, then end the kind of detention that we think of as Guantanamo."

Whatever the debate, the facts on the ground in Guantanamo Bay tell their own story: The military is spending millions on new infrastructure around the prisons, including a cardiac care unit to accommodate an aging inmate population.

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