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Camp Delta inmates will talk for burgers

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA — GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - American interrogators here have come up with a few new weapons as they try to pry loose the secrets of prisoners captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

"It could be cupcakes, it could be Twinkies, it could even be a McDonald's hamburger," says Warrant Officer James Kluck, who, as the ranking food service officer, helps supply some of the unlikely ammunition.

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"Sometimes, they go up on the base and get [the prisoner] a Happy Meal."

A McDonald's Happy Meal?

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"Oh, yes, from what I'm told. It's got a toy and everything."

Yet, somehow it doesn't seem surprising at the strange and surreal Camp Delta, the seaside prison complex built by the Pentagon nearly a year and a half ago in this fenced-off corner of Cuba. It is a penal colony unlike any other ever created by the American government, nestled in cactus-spiked hills and visited by giant iguanas, but, by careful design, well beyond reach of defense lawyers and the U.S. Constitution.

With a captor-to-captive ratio of greater than 4-to-1, it may be the world's most securely staffed prison, yet not a single detainee has been charged with a crime, or told how long he'll be staying. The detainee population is 660 men and three teen-age boys.

Although the detainees are popularly held to be united in anti-American fanaticism, they are also a quarrelsome Babel, riven by religious schisms, 19 languages, the rivalries of 42 nations, and a high incidence of mental instability.

Camp Delta, as well as neighboring Camp America where the military guards live, faces the wide open blue-green of the Caribbean, but captives and captors alike find the location claustrophobic, an isolated bunion on Cuba's rocky heel.

And the camp's most important role is not as a prison but as an intelligence clearinghouse - for names of operatives, details of attack plans, and insights on recruitment tactics and organizational strategies.

"We do approximately 300 interrogations a week, and we get better every week," says Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of the task force of 2,800 soldiers and civilians who run the place. "Last month, we developed five times as much intelligence as we did in January. ... A lot of that is actionable intelligence."

The evidence to back up such claims is classified, meaning it's impossible to independently verify. Around Camp Delta, that is known as "op-sec," or operational security, a watchword that is frequently posted and repeated.

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But Miller maintains that all of this secret information is increasingly being offered voluntarily, with prisoners asking for a chat in hopes of earning more exercise time, better living conditions, or more and better food. Which is where those Happy Meals and Twinkies come into play.

"The incentive program has been in place since February," says Kluck, the food service officer.

That was a month after he met with interrogation officials to discuss the sorts of foods that might elicit information. Inmates had expressed a particular desire for sweets, sometimes relaying their wishes through the military's Muslim chaplain.

About the same time, Camp Delta officials were planning another inducement - a new medium-security wing that would offer communal living instead of solitary cells, larger portions of food, a larger exercise area and more time to use it.

There were a few glitches. It took the food vendor two months to round up a supply of fresh dates, for example. But in April, the new medium-security Camp Four opened, and about 125 prisoners have earned their way inside, partly through good behavior, partly by virtually emptying themselves of useful information.

A quick tour of the place on a recent afternoon found five detainees lounging with their lunches in a shaded portion of the exercise yard. All five were bearded, and one had shaved his head. They watched with interest as their visitors passed a volleyball court toward an empty cellblock. One nodded in acknowledgment, although none called out. That would be behavior subject to punishment.

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The predominant language of Camp Delta is Arabic, but most who have made it to medium-security status speak Pashto or Urdu, indicating that Afghans and Pakistanis have been more yielding than their counterparts from Arab states.

Prison officials say that in the maximum-security wings are still plenty of inmates who clam up or act up. Some throw food, toothpaste or urine onto the guards, according to Col. Adolph McQueen, the joint detention group commander.

Yet, for all the talk of the sweet tooth and exercise time as behavior modifiers, Camp Delta's most powerful incentive to detainees is the prospect of freedom.

Guantanamo's basic message is clear: If you never talk, you might never get out, even if you're never charged with a crime.

"One of the things [interrogators] have going for them is time," says William Tierney, a former Army intelligence officer who was an Arabic interpreter for some of the early rounds of interrogation at Guantanamo. "They just keep wearing these guys down. ... And I'm sure that is always subtly stressed - 'We have no idea when you're going to leave.' "

Other consequences

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But the motivation that makes some prisoners talk seems to drive others to more desperate measures, including 31 suicide attempts by 20 prisoners to date, none successful. Those figures help explain why the idea of indefinite detention angers some human rights advocates, who criticize Camp Delta as a legal netherworld.

The detainees aren't charged with crimes, so they are said not to be entitled to lawyers. They're not prisoners of war - "enemy combatant" is the preferred term here - so they don't receive the protection of the Geneva Convention. They're not on U.S. soil, so they have no constitutional protections.

"[The Pentagon's] concept of the legal black hole is completely contrary to what the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has interpreted the Geneva Convention to say," says Ken Hurwitz, a senior associate of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, based in New York. "They've been very clear on the subject that no [detainee] can be without a legal status."

Such interpretations cut no ice here. Or, as Sgt. Maj. John R. VanNatta, Camp Delta's superintendent, says, "I don't have to worry much about lawsuits and things like that."

As an Army reservist, VanNatta offers an interesting perspective on these matters. Back home in Indiana he is warden of a state prison with more than 3,000 inmates. The prisoners outnumber the staff about 4-to-1. Here the ratio is inverted.

In Indiana, he worries about an inmate's well-being the most right after incarceration, when guilt and shame tend to be the sharpest. Nonetheless, he says, "Back home, in my experience, we've basically had no suicide attempts."

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He plays down many of the suicide attempts made here, saying, "A lot of it that I've seen is more of an attention-getter. 'I'll kill myself if you don't give me that,' and he proceeds to take a towel and attempt to string himself up. With a few of them, I think it has to do with being harassed by the other detainees, and there are some with mental health problems. But some of it is in fact the despair."

The Pentagon would appear to have little incentive to alleviate this underlying despair, given its motivational powers. More prisoners are said to be choosing to cooperate every week. Miller says that about 80 percent have earned some sort of more lenient treatment.

Nor are the inmates the only ones made more malleable by the specter of spending the rest of their days at Guantanamo. Word filtering back from officers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan says that the mere threat of transport to Guantanamo is enough to get recent captives talking.

Early last year, detainees were housed at Camp X-Ray, a warren of chain-link cages that now sit empty, looking like an abandoned kennel.

Those days also were a time of great dissatisfaction among the guarding forces, who were living in sweltering tents and complaining that they were being fed worse food than the prisoners.

Improvements

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But most such talk has disappeared, thanks mostly to a new mess hall with a five-week rotating menu, not to mention a salad bar and soft ice-cream dispenser. There is also an open-air bar. There are occasional concerts (Jimmy Buffett flew in on his floatplane). The barracks are air-conditioned. Some officers have moved into rehabbed homes on the naval base next door.

The naval base is complete with families, schools, Little Leagues, an outdoor movie theater, a diving shop, a sailing center and subdivisions that would look at home in the suburbs of Baltimore, which only adds to the surreal atmosphere. All these amenities are available to the Camp America forces. There is a nine-hole golf course, although the brown fairways are so parched that players carry swatches of fake turf as a portable hitting surface.

Further spicing this mix are the Cuban watchtowers dotting the hilly horizon.

"They can see 80 percent of what happens on this base," says Capt. Les McCoy, commander of the naval base.

The main portion of the base is also home to a two-story building in which the Pentagon has built a courtroom, in readiness for military tribunals that will be used to try any detainees charged with crimes. New signs inside the building indicate locations for "Defense," "Prosecution," "Jury" and "Courtroom," but the courtroom remains closed to reporters.

Miller insists that no decision has yet been made on the site of the tribunals, and he chooses his words carefully when asked whether an execution chamber has been built: "Joint Task Force Guantanamo has no approved plans for execution chambers."

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If and when tribunals begin here, Pentagon officials have indicated that no more than about 20 detainees are expected to be charged. That would leave about 640 detainees who would be wondering how long they will be imprisoned.

Increased anxieties

Such anxieties only intensify after detainees begin cooperating. "In [medium-security] Camp Four, they see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they tend to ask that question more," VanNatta says. "There is a little bit more anxiety about being released."

As supervisor of Camp Four, Sgt. 1st Class James Harmon is often the one who fields those questions. His answers aren't encouraging.

"I tell them I don't get into that subject of when they're going home, and that just because they're here doesn't mean it will be soon," he says. "I tell them to ask their interrogators."

Sixty-eight detainees have been returned to their home countries, some to further detention. More bad news for prisoners is that, by all indications, Camp Delta is going to be around for some time to come.

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"The joint task force will be here as long as it takes to win the war on terror," General Miller says, declining to estimate how many years that might be.


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