International Terrorists in Custody

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Chapter Five
International Terrorists in Custody

Tracking terrorists and making arrests is one aspect of the overall global war on terror, but an equally important and equally complex aspect is the handling of suspected terrorists once they have been apprehended. The first issue is the processing and imprisonment of terrorists. The second involves getting them to reveal information about other terrorists and their plans. Like much about this new kind of war, the treatment of terrorists in custody involves new strategies and methods and has yielded mixed results.

Processing Arrestees

Those arrested for terrorism generally fall into one of two categories. The first is terrorist leaders such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammad. When such important people are captured, where they are kept and how they are being treated is kept secret. For example, after his arrest in Pakistan, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad was quickly whisked away for questioning by U.S. authorities, and he will most likely be held in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location until he is brought to trial in the United States.

The second, much larger category of arrestees includes those caught in sweeps, such as occurred in Afghanistan at the time of the fall of the Taliban. Lower-level operatives and substantial numbers of detainees who have been captured or who have surrendered in groups are usually taken as a group to a secure facility operated by the arresting country or a nearby American military base, such as the one at Bagram, Afghanistan. There they are questioned to determine their citizenship and, to the degree possible, their connection to terrorist activity. In some cases it is immediately apparent that a person has no terrorist connections and has simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time; such individuals are released. This is a fairly unusual occurrence, however, because it is often difficult to sort

through the stories of each detainee and determine with confidence whose claims of noninvolvement are true. As a result, many detainees have been in custody for several years.

Guantáanamo Bay

Once American military action in Afghanistan began, individuals in custody quickly numbered in the hundreds. A facility

known as Camp X-Ray, originally erected at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba to house Haitian refugees in the 1990s, was quickly converted into a makeshift prison for Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other arrestees who were moved there from Afghanistan in early 2002.

The original detainees in Camp X-Ray numbered around one hundred primarily Muslim men. They were housed in six-by-eight-foot enclosures, consisting of chain-link fencing for walls, tin roofs, and concrete floors. They were given thin mats and blankets for use in sleep and to kneel on for daily prayer. Photographs of the prisoners in what amounted to cages, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, some wearing goggles, earmuffs, and other devices designed to keep them from seeing and hearing, created an uproar among human rights groups around the world. Later, inmates'diets were adjusted to conform to Muslim religious laws, and they were given Qur'ans, the holy book of Islam. Medical care improved, and they were permitted to regrow their characteristic beards, which had been shaved upon their arrest.

The U.S. government also responded to widespread concerns voiced by the Red Cross and other groups by constructing a more permanent facility in Guantánamo Bay called Camp Delta. At this site, large crates used for international shipping were divided into 5.5-by-8-foot cells, with steel mesh replacing three sides of the original container. Half the cell space is taken up by a metal bed that is welded to the one solid wall, and there is barely room to stand and stretch. According to reporter Richard Phillips, "These cells are smaller than the death row facilities in Texas, where inmates are allowed to shower and to exercise for an hour outside the cells each day." In contrast, Camp Delta prisoners "are confined to their non–air conditioned cells in fierce tropical heat for all but thirty minutes a week,"31 when they are allowed to exercise, wearing handcuffs, in a slightly larger 25-by-18-foot enclosure. Not all of those arrested in Afghanistan and neighboring countries are sent to

Guantánamo Bay. North of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, a military base at Bagram is being used by the United States as a detention center. Typical conditions there are similar to those at Guantánamo Bay.

A Deteriorating Situation

By the middle of 2002 the number of detainees at Guantánamo Bay had grown to over 500, and by mid-2003 the number stood at 650, from forty-three different countries. By the first anniversary of the arrival of the initial group on January 15, 2002, only 5 had been released. By March 2003, 16 Guantánamo detainees had attempted suicide, usually by hanging or suffocation, and 4 of these had tried twice. None succeeded, although one was left in a coma from which it is unlikely he will awaken. One inmate recently pleaded in a letter, "set me free as I am innocent or take me to the court for trial [or let me] die as I cannot stand life in this place."32 In response to the suicide attempts, U.S. military officials opened a new psychiatric ward at Guantánamo Bay. Though some cells in this ward will be larger, many prisoners will live in similar conditions to those in which they attempted suicide. Some even will remain shackled while they receive psychological counseling and psychiatric care.

Recently several dozen prisoners were moved to a new medium security wing of Camp Delta. There they sleep in a communal dorm and have greater ability to move around. They are allowed to exercise daily and eat and pray together. As many as two hundred may eventually be housed under such conditions—a precursor, American officials say, to their ultimate release and return home either to face trial or regain their liberty. In mid-2003 the Department of Defense, on the heels of revelations that several detainees were young teenagers, announced that a few unidentified prisoners were scheduled

for imminent release and that the government would be moving faster in the future to investigate each prisoner's case. In May 2003 several dozen prisoners left Guantánamo Bay for Afghanistan, but whether they are now free is not clear.

Stress and Duress

Recent investigative reports in newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal focus attention not on the conditions at Guantánamo Bay but on allegations of serious mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram, the military detention center in Afghanistan. Autopsies on two prisoners who died there in December 2002 revealed blunt force injuries to their bodies that contributed to their death; both deaths were subsequently ruled homicides.

"Stress and duress" is the name military officers use for the techniques designed to gain information from some terror suspects at Bagram and elsewhere. Stress and duress is not as extreme as deliberate, directly inflicted torture, but its intention—to break prisoners'wills and induce them to reveal information—is the same. A practice called "softening up" of new captives includes beatings by military police and U.S. Army Special Forces. According to Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, prisoners are "commonly blindfolded and thrown into walls, bound in painful positions, subjected to loud noises and deprived of sleep,"33 and kept awake by kicks and nonstop bombardment with bright light. They may be forced to stay in one position for hours, and some released detainees have reported that prisoners are chained to the ceiling for extended periods of time and are denied food and drink. Pain medication has been withheld from wounded prisoners to give them further incentive to talk.

Though no one is accusing the United States of the extreme methods of torture used by some repressive regimes around the world, a number of concerns have arisen about practices by which, in the words of reporters Priest and Gellman, "the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred."34 Some Americans argue that it is vital to learn whatever information al-Qaeda suspects have, as

a way of protecting Americans from future attacks, but many others are deeply troubled by this attitude. In 1999 in a report to the UN Committee Against Torture, the U.S. delegates said, "Americans find torture abhorrent to their very notion of themselves as Americans. The right to be free of torture is an indelible element of the American experience."35 The same standards apply to American citizens and noncitizens everywhere the U.S. government operates in the world. This basic American value, nevertheless, has been challenged by the war on terror.

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense in the Bush administration, has repeatedly denied that anyone is being tortured at American hands, as defined by the UN Convention on Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994. In that document, torture is defined as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession"36 by a person acting in an official capacity. The Geneva Convention, the most important documents outlining the rights of wartime prisoners, define torture similarly, and clearly outlaw it. Calling prisoners "dry and safe," and describing U.S. treatment of prisoners as "proper …humane …and appropriate," Rumsfeld has said that there was no doubt in his mind that the conditions of their captivity are "consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part."37

Rumsfeld and other spokespersons for the Bush administration do not speak on the record about specific activities, but they do acknowledge that the most aggressive interrogation techniques allowable by international standards are being employed. The commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, Daniel McNeill, said American tactics had been adapted to the situation, adding that "they are in accordance with what is generally accepted as interrogation techniques."38


Another means of getting information from terrorists is the practice known as rendition. Rendition is the military practice of turning over, or rendering, arrestees for questioning by the authorities of another country. This practice differs from the formal legal process known as extradition, in which one country demands the return of a criminal held in custody by the civilian authorities of another country. Military renditions of terror suspects sometimes occur immediately upon arrest; others take place, usually secretly, at a later time if the suspect has not been cooperative under initial questioning.

Rendition of fugitive criminals has in the past been seen as a legitimate form of international cooperation, but some charge it is being used illegitimately in the war on terror. Groups such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross claim that its purpose is no longer to help other countries track down their own criminals, but to send terror suspects for interrogation in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, where torture of prisoners is known to occur. "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them,"39 one directly involved official is quoted by Washington Post reporters Priest and Gellman.

Any reports of mistreatment of a rendered suspect by CIA or other American operatives are classified, but according to one diplomat, "After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time. It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can't do on American soil."40 A senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of American interrogation practices summarized American involvement by saying, "In some cases involving interrogations in Saudi Arabia, we're able to observe directly through one-way mirrors the live investigations. In others we get summaries. We will feed questions to their investigators." But he adds, "They're still very much in control."41

It cannot be said with certainty how many suspects have been rendered during the war on terror because such transfers are usually made secretly, even of low-level operatives, and the circumstances of the custody of top terror suspects are rarely if ever revealed. However, some officials estimate that of the three thousand or so individuals in U.S. custody as terror suspects, approximately one hundred have already been rendered. Thousands more are believed to be in the custody of the foreign authorities who made the original arrest.

A Simmering Debate

The treatment of terror suspects is extremely controversial and depends on very different situations. For example, journalist Martin Edwin Andersen describes a situation in which "credible sources say a [detainee] has specific knowledge about a terrorist cell that has obtained a suitcase nuclear bomb and plans to use it within hours. … How can his captors …make him talk before it is too late?"42 Some people argue that torture would be justified in such a situation, including well-known political commentator William F. Buckley:"We should not torture an al-Qaeda prisoner as a general rule. But to torture the one who knows where the hijacked airborne 737 is headed is an exemption to the rule."43 Though the idea of torture is distasteful to many Americans, a few argue that it is time to establish laws permitting it under certain circumstances. "We can't

just close our eyes and pretend we live in a pure world,"44 Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote in 2003, arguing that the war on terror requires a new legal process by which torture warrants can be granted to American authorities on a case-by-case basis.

Few topics generate more heated debate than the justification of torture. Most who argue openly for the selective use of torture feel it should be limited to situations in which crucial information is needed immediately to protect America and its people. However, experts point out that the information extracted under torture is often incorrect, blurted out simply to end the torture. Some suggest permitting the torture of suspected terrorists would have a deterrent effect, stopping people from becoming terrorists. Others counter that if the United States practices torture, American captives are more likely to be tortured by other nations in retaliation.

Some argue that torture is unacceptable under any circumstances, a violation of human dignity and human rights to which all people everywhere are entitled, regardless of what they have done. "We never want to become like those we claim as our enemies,"45 Scott Silliman, a professor at the Duke University law school, points out. Silliman speaks for many Americans who believe that their country does, and should always, set the standards for the world. Clearly the issue of treatment of terror suspects in detention will be a major test of American values as the war on terror proceeds.

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International Terrorists in Custody

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International Terrorists in Custody