Observed Stimson: "We've had over 2,000 journalists visit Gitmo. People who go and see it for themselves realize it's almost Alice in Wonderland - down is up and up is down. The caricature of Guantanamo is exactly the opposite of the reality of Guantanamo. Detainees at Gitmo are treated humanely, in accordance with Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention."
Stimson mentioned that the majority of the journalists visiting Gitmo have not been Americans. They represent the A-Z of media outlets, including Al Jazeera TV, and media from China, Russia, the Middle East and Far East. Visitors don't visit just for an hour or so. They go down on a Sunday and leave on a Thursday.
As to the notion that the Pentagon might hand-pick the American media representatives it permits to visit, Stimson responded: "we've never said no. We let everyone go." He invited members of the media, whatever their point of view, to contact the Public Affairs Office of the Secretary of Defense and make arrangements to visit. He mentioned that when he flies down with media representatives, his comments during the entire three-hour flight in each direction are on the record.
Stimson's experience has been that people who had been harsh critics prior to their visit typically change their opinion after they leave. Among the examples cited by Stimson is that of James Ellis, a Brit who had been very critical of conditions at Gitmo. After his visit, he adopted the position that closing Gitmo would in fact make the world a more dangerous place.
As described by Stimson:
- Detaineess receive three square, halal-based, meals a day from a menu from which they can order.
- They are provided the same medical and dental care that our troops at Gitmo receive.
- They have a library with thousands of books in multiple languages, with access on any day.
- Detainees enjoy freedom of religion - there is call to prayer five times a day, which detainees call themselves. Korans and other religious materials are provided in their native language.
- They have the ability to exercise from two up to 14 hours a day.
- Detainees are not held incommunicado, contrary to what some have claimed. Over 44,000 pieces of mail have gone on and off the island to and from detainees. Detainees can write anyone they want, with postage paid by the US government.
- The International Committee of the Red Cross has unfettered access to the prisoners.
- Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention, setting forth the detainees rights, is posted in several languages in a variety of places throughout the camp.
- Unlike POWs, who are kept till the end of the conflict, the US government has transferred over 400 detainees back to their native countries.
Specifically with regard to interrogation, Stimson stated that whereas the Army Field Manual provides for 19 types of interrogation, there is only one used: a direct approach of simply talking. Any guard who might mistreat a detainee is pulled off the line and disciplined.
Stimson mentioned that to speed up the adjudication of the detainees' cases, a new courtroom facility is planned. There is currently only one courtroom. The new facility will add two more courtrooms, including one that can handle multiple-defendant trials. With the new facility, Stimson expressed the hope that the trials can be brought to closure in three to four years.
Stimson described the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq as an "atrocious chapter" attributable to a rogue band who have now been held accountable. Subsequent to the incident, the Department of Defense launched twelve separate, high-level investigations, resulting in 492 recommendations. Stimson chairs the committee charged with implementing the recommendations and reported that to date, 486 have been implemented. "We have made massive strides," he observed, mentioning that the remaining handful of recommendations are ones that DoD cannot implement alone.
Bottom line: it is my personal belief that some time in the not-too-distant future, people will look back on this period and conclude that the treatment of detainees by the United States has been the most humane in the history of warfare.
A webcast of my interview of Sec. Stimson is available here
UPDATE 1-08: For those wishing to learn more, and/or to call in with questions or comments, Mr. Stimson will be appearing on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" (television) on Wednesday, Jan. 10th, from 9:00-9:45 AM.Mark visited Iraq in November. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org