GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Progress has been made to improve conditions and protect detainees’ rights at the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists, House Republicans and Democrats, including one who has advocated closing the facility, said Saturday.
The U.S. lawmakers witnessed interrogations, toured cell blocks and ate the same lunch given to detainees on the first congressional visit to the prison for suspected terrorists since criticism of it intensified in the spring.
“The Guantanamo we saw today is not the Guantanamo we heard about a few years ago,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif.
Still, lawmakers from both parties agree more must be done to ensure an adequate legal process is in place to handle detainee cases. In the meantime, said Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., “I think they’re doing the best they can to define due process here.”
Republicans and Democrats alike fear the prison at the U.S. Navy base in eastern Cuba is hurting the United States’ image because of claims that interrogators have abused and tortured inmates. The White House and Pentagon say conditions are humane, and detainees are well-treated.
Lawmakers wanted to see for themselves.
After getting a classified briefing from base commanders, the House delegation ate lunch with troops – the same meal of chicken with orange sauce, rice and okra that detainees were served. They then toured several of the barbed-wire camps where detainees are housed, viewing small cells, dusty recreation yards and common areas.
From behind one-way mirrors, lawmakers watched interrogators grilling three individual terror suspects. None of the interrogators touched detainees.
In one session, they questioned a man who defense officials said was a Saudi national and admitted al Qaeda member who was picked up in Afghanistan and knew nine of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. In another, a female interrogator took an unusual approach to wear down a detainee, reading a Harry Potter book aloud for hours. He turned his back and put his hands over his ears.
Bearded detainees in white frocks, flip-flops and skull caps quietly lingered nearby, behind fences. At one communal camp for those given privileges because of good behavior, detainees played soccer.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is one of many Democrats who have called for an independent commission to investigate abuse allegations and said the facility should close. She stopped short of changing her position after the visit, but acknowledged, “What we’ve seen here is evidence that we’ve made progress.”
The White House and Pentagon have defended their policies at the prison almost daily in recent weeks.
At a news conference last week, the president went so far as to invite journalists to visit the prison and see that the allegations were false. The Pentagon says about 400 news organizations have toured the prison since it opened.
A small press contingent joined House lawmakers on this weekend’s trip. However, military escorts controlled how much journalists were able to see and hear. In an unclassified briefing, commanders stressed the “safe and humane custody and control of detainees” by troops.
On a tour of one camp occupied by detainees considered “high value” for providing intelligence, journalists saw no detainees but watched as troops passed meals through small cells on one block. Detainees were clearly upset at the sound of visitors, shouting non-English words and pounding on closed doors while journalists entered an interrogation room – empty except for a set of handcuffs, a folding chair, a small table and two padded office chairs.
Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of the joint task force at Guantanamo Bay, said he’s made transparency a priority. “It’s probably my best, our best opportunity to set the record straight,” he said.
Last week, human rights investigators for the United Nations urged the U.S. to allow them inside to inspect the facility. They cited “persistent and credible” reports of “serious allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees” as well as arbitrary detentions and violations of rights.
In response, Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN on Thursday that the detainees are well treated, well fed and “living in the tropics.”
The prison on the base in eastern Cuba opened in January 2002 to house foreigners believed to be linked to al Qaeda or the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. officials hoped to gather intelligence from the detainees after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
Bush declared the detainees “enemy combatants,” affording them fewer rights than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Some detainees have been held for three years without being charged with any crimes.