Officials inspect Camp X-Ray

Defense secretary insists detainees are not prisoners of war

Center is fine, senators say

January 28, 2002|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew into this contentious little corner of his domain yesterday to demonstrate his conviction that the United States is doing exactly the right thing with its 158 detainees from Afghanistan.

"They are not prisoners of war," he said. And despite qualms in the State Department and intense criticism from abroad, "they will not be determined to be prisoners of war."

The detainees are being treated as if they are protected by the Geneva Convention -- which they are not, Rumsfeld said. Everything is fine inside the open-air chain-link detention center, he said. But it is still too sensitive a subject to let the news media come in for a look.

Last week, the dispute swelled -- particularly in Europe -- over the treatment and status of the Taliban and al-Qaida captives here. Critics said that they are being abused and denied their rights under international conventions.

Rumsfeld retorted that they are not being abused and that the conventions don't apply. He was adamant yesterday that Taliban fighters in custody are no different from al-Qaida fighters -- they're all terrorists, he said, and none of them is a proper combatant.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has urged the United States to recognize that the detainees fall under the Geneva Convention, which spells out treatment for unlawful combatants and for prisoners of war.

But Rumsfeld argued yesterday that the section of the convention comes into play only if a detainee's status is questionable. "There is no ambiguity in this case," he said. There can be no doubt, he said, that the prisoners are terrorists and are therefore unlawful fighters.

In any case, if the old saying about possession being nine-tenths of the law were to apply in a situation such as this, then a glance around Guantanamo yesterday would suggest that Rumsfeld has most of the law on his side.

Camp X-Ray sits in a little hollow on the outskirts of the main part of the base, surrounded by low, scrub-covered hills.

What the captives can see from their 8-by-8-foot enclosures is this: a lot of American soldiers on guard duty, then a lot of razor wire, and beyond that an array of guard posts manned by heavily armed Marines. They also can see a green sign pointing the way to Mecca; next to it hangs an American flag.

What they can't see are the gunboats in the bay, or the minefields in the hills, or the "other country" that lies just beyond those hills.

Rumsfeld took four senators on a tour of the camp. They came out impressed.

"Take another look," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, advised critics. "I would rather be here in an 8-by-8 with a breeze than be locked down in Folsom Prison."

"They were volunteers in a terrorist organization that set about to try to destroy our country," said Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska. "I didn't expect they'd be treated so well."

A view of the camp from about 200 yards away, along with the senators' descriptions, strongly suggests that conditions here are considerably better than in, for instance, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance basement prisons, into which Taliban soldiers were routinely jammed. And Russian camps for Chechen prisoners pale greatly by comparison.

But America's allies are uneasy over doubts that the United States considers itself bound by any rules at all. And, after the release of a now-famous photograph of captives wearing black goggles and kneeling before American soldiers, the British news media in particular seized on the idea of torture and whipped up a sense of outrage.

Since Saturday, a group of journalists from Britain, Sweden, Germany and Australia has been at Guantanamo as part of an American effort to win the public relations battle. But these journalists, too, have been denied access to the camp and must rely on the word of American officials here to understand what's going on.

What those American officials report isn't always consistent.

Rumsfeld said yesterday that the 158 Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners are vicious killers who were trained to sow destruction in the United States and who, if released, would kill again.

A camp spokesman, Lt. Col. Angel Lugo, described the detainees as calm and mild-mannered.

A Navy ophthalmologist, Cmdr. James Gallagher, said the detainees appreciated the medical attention he was giving them. And one man, he said, who is blind in one eye, is positively grateful.

Everyone, including Rumsfeld, described these dedicated killers as giving up all sorts of useful information during interrogation sessions held in one of the windowless plywood huts set aside for the purpose.

Rumsfeld said those who were brought here had been selected during a sorting process in Kandahar and in Bagram, Afghanistan, as being most likely to provide good intelligence. Some of it, Rumsfeld said, had been added to intelligence gained in Pakistan and Afghanistan and used to thwart terrorist attacks.

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