“This is the war that has marked our generation,” the commander of the Guantanamo Base said as he spoke to dozens of soldiers ahead of a commemorative run to honour military members killed in the past 10 years since 9/11.
Some soldiers had pictures of the victims taped to their running shirts. The military base in Cuba, like other bases overseas, was on an increased security alert – on the second degree level.
Down the road from the base is one of the most notorious prison complex in the world, still populated by the prisoners of the war on terror. Kahlid Sheik Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the twin towers’ attack and his 4 alleged co-conspirators are still awaiting trial here, locked up in a camp that no one is allowed to talk about, much less visit.
As me and cameraman Snorre Wik prepare to film a presentation inside one of the camps that can be filmed, under strict very strict regulations, the military minder accompanying us corrects me (he was listening to my on camera presentation). “They are not prisoners, they are detainees,” he asserts in military tone.
I think to myself that Guantanamo must be one of the very few places in the world where someone can be “detained” for nearly 10 years. Is that not the equivalent of being a prisoner?
The minder is technically right, these 171 men under indefinite arrest are not your average prisoner, they are labeled “alien unlawful enemy combatants”, and this label is not gratuitous. It means, among other things, that when captured on the “battlefield” of the war on terror, the International Geneva Conventions do not apply.
“Prisoners of war” have access to lawyers, protection against torture, and special treatment if they are children. It also means that even today some of their rights will continue to be violated. We are told that today only 36 “detainees” can begin a process of going to court for the first time, to hear why they have been in Guantanamo, and hear the charges, ten years later.
President Obama promised to close down the camps 2 and a half years ago, but in a turn of events created a legal framework to keep the prison to continue working for a long while to come. The “detainees” conditions have largely improved since 9/11 and the military is always sure of showing members of the media the privileges of Guantanamo prison.
There are 4 doctors for 171 detainees, they can rent books, video call with their relatives, go to school and talk to each other (in the medium security facilities).
We are not told however, that in nearly 10 years, 6 have committed suicide, dozens have gone on hunger strikes and dozens more now show signs of dementia.
During countless military hearings that I attended I remember hearing accounts of bounty hunter’s buying prisoners for US military. It appears that some in Guantanamo had not even heard of al-Qaeda before landing in the Caribbean island.
Admiral Woods tells me that “these detainees are enemy combatants picked up in the war against terrorism, and the world is safer because of that”.
But it doesn’t take knowledge of top secret material collected from interrogations on base to be able to make a case against Guantanamo, not only in legal terms, but in terms of an intelligence gathering project. 7 out of 10 detainees who were here in the past decade were released without the United States being able to prove they belonged to al-Qaeda.
Most of the men, according to Wikileaks, had either no connection to al-Qaeda at all or were far from the top echelons of the terrorist organization.
In fact, only 14 out of 779 people who have been through here seem to have been “big fish” within al-Qaeda, or operatives who knew the workings of the network and its plans.
Basically, in ten years, all the information extracted from Guantanamo has not led to the capture of the top al-Qaeda commanders. The Osama Bin Laden raid was possible thanks to a lead provided by the Pakistani intelligence agency, miles away from Cuba.