To fly into the damp Caribbean heat of this U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is to enter a place of multifaceted myth, a zone that continues to inflame the imagination of the world. And yet, when it comes to witnesses, monitors and the media, there is probably no more heavily trafficked detention center on the planet. Since the United States began bringing suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives there more than four years ago, Guantanamo has hosted visits by more than 1,000 members of the media, from more than 500 news organizations - including Qatar's Al-Jazeera, Egyptian TV, and such Arabic-language newspapers as Al Sharq al Aswat and Al Hayat. More than 300 lawyers have descended, many offering pro bono services to the detainees.
Humanitarian groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come to view the military commissions that review individual cases. Official emissaries have dropped by from Europe. Four times a year, delegates arrive from the International Committee of the Red Cross, spending a month each time to talk privately with the detainees, check their condition, and offer them a chance to contact their families. Along with this, we have had the much-debated efforts of the White House, Congress and the U.S. courts to calibrate an approach that will glean information, avert the release of hard-core terrorists, yet treat the captives gently enough to satisfy not only basic standards of humanity, but an apparently endless queue of critics.
At the center of it all are about 460 detainees. Among that number are 14 recently arrived "high-value" terrorist all-stars, including Indonesia's Hambali, al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a Yemeni believed to be the missing 20th hijacker, Ramzi Binalshibh.
In the effort to welcome reporters, treat detainees with care, glean information, and avoid releasing terrorists to hatch fresh plots (at least 20 of about 300 released have returned to the fight), U.S. officials walk an almost impossible tightrope.
When I visited Guantanamo on a Pentagon-hosted press tour last week, I was told to show up at 5:30 a.m. for the plane ride to the Caribbean from Washington. I expected a rough flight on a military transport and a day of lean rations. But we were ushered onto a sleek jet with deep seats and served a breakfast of French toast, while officers answered our preliminary questions. At Guantanamo, we were welcomed by the base commander, Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., who took almost two hours to brief us and answer yet more questions over lunch before dispatching us on a guided tour of the detainee cells, recreational yards and medical facilities.
What we saw is a place so steeped in political correctness that it comes close to caricature. Make no mistake: The detainees occupy cells in a high-security facility. But almost every room has an arrow on the floor pointing to Mecca. Signs demanding silence stand ready for prayer time. Korans are cradled in surgical masks. Detainees are interrogated while sitting on sofas or cushioned reclining chairs.
They choose from a halal menu including such home-style treats as dates and baklava. Doctors, dentists and psychiatrists (offering confidential counseling) are on 24-hour call. Good behavior is rewarded with access to board games, books and communal areas, including more time in recreational yards - where we saw a group of detainees chatting around a table, while one of their cohorts nearby, at leisurely speed in the afternoon heat, pedaled an exercise bike.
An officer tells me that earlier this year Guantanamo was buying bottled water that had an American flag on the label. Lest this upset the detainees, base personnel were put to work stripping off the labels. At the same time, there is a deadly game going on in this camp.
Security guards detach name strips from their uniforms when going near the detainees. Some of the guards, we are told, have been on the receiving end not only of direct attacks and threats from the inmates, but threats against their families. Detainees have made weapons out of light bulbs, fan blades, the footpads of their Asian-style toilets, and the springs in their push-button sinks. Guards tell us that detainees use the lawyer-client privileges they enjoy as a clandestine communications network both inside and outside the camp. What exists in the inmate culture, Harris explains, is, in effect, "a fully tricked-out al-Qaeda operating cell."
The conundrum in running Gitmo is how to contain and learn from this scene without getting killed by the inmates on the one hand and clobbered by the critics on the other. I asked Harris how he and his colleagues manage to navigate this maze and remain sane. He answers that this is their job: "We're the most transparent detention facility in the world."
As we head for the plane back to Washington, it seems to me that if the critics of Guantanamo are not satisfied by now, they never will be. If the real aim of the criticisms still directed at this place is truth, justice and security for the Free World, we would be better served were some of the critics to turn their attentions to the countries that spawned this terrorist jihad - countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, countries with prisons whose names most of the world does not remember, and, in many cases, has never even heard.
This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer.