The American prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has always been built on a great lie: that it would only house the "worst of the worst." That was never true. Hundreds of innocent men were brought to Guantanamo and held for years in tough conditions, with some subject to serious abuses. But rather than be honest about the tragic missteps of the past and confront the lingering issues over detainee treatment, the Pentagon puts on a preposterous dog-and-pony show when reporters come calling. The demonstration undermines the Pentagon's credibility and makes President Barack Obama's job harder as he wrestles with an intransigent Congress to shutter Guantanamo once and for all.
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Meg Laughlin and photographer Chris Zuppa spent two days at Guantanamo recently. Defense Department personnel led them through hours of tightly controlled interviews. Laughlin was not allowed to interview a single detainee, despite having obtained permission from at least six attorneys to meet with their detainee clients. She would only hear the Pentagon's side of the story. And what a whopper of a story it was — short on facts, corroboration and the truth.
Pentagon personnel wouldn't discuss the torturing of prisoners with sleep deprivation, wall slamming and exposure to extreme heat and cold, all documented in a 2008 Justice Department report, except to say that these techniques weren't defined as torture at the time.
Instead, they were hell-bent on portraying Guantanamo as a "caring old folks' home for terrorists" — as National Guard Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, a former deputy commander, described it in eerily Orwellian terms.
All of the well-reported harsh conditions of confinement were dismissed by Laughlin's tour guides. When she raised concerns about the force-feedings of hunger strikers — described as sadistic by detainees who have gone through it — Laughlin was told that the feedings are a "social hour" so gentle that some detainees choose to be force-fed after eating just to be part of the "good experience."
When Laughlin asked about the damaging psychological effects of solitary confinement in the maximum-security area where prisoners are kept in cells 22 hours a day except for the time they are allowed to roam alone in a small outdoor cage, she was told "there is no solitary confinement here. They just spend a lot of time alone in their cells."
Laughlin's visit had a Potemkin Village feel where everyone appeared to be under orders to proclaim how lucky detainees are. A little more transparency and candor would go a long way toward addressing the inevitable suspicions that exactly the opposite is true.
The Pentagon's refusal to be forthright about Guantanamo muddies the politics surrounding it. The Democratically led Congress recently prevented the relocation of Guantanamo detainees to American maximum-security facilities, even though there are plenty of convicted terrorists already locked up on U.S. soil. It is as if no one in a position of power feels he can be honest about Guantanamo and the people held there.
The facts: About 780 men have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, with about 540 now released and returned to their families. Most were never terrorists at all, but were treated as if they were. That stain remains on Guantanamo and becomes all the more indelible each time the Pentagon tries to whitewash it. The prison needs to be closed, the sooner the better.