In this photo, reviewed by a U.S. Dept of Defense official, one detainee leads a group as they bow during Islamic prayer, at Camp Delta detention center, Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba on Dec. 4. (AP Photo/Brennan Llinsley)
Al Qaeda might be on the run in Afghanistan, but Osama bin Laden's agents are in the driver's seat at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Officers tell of daily attacks by al Qaeda inmates against U.S. military personnel, who are ordered not to respond. The officers have also been ordered to fulfill the religious, cultural and even entertainment needs of the inmates, including providing Arabic translations of Harry Potter.
"I have never once since I've been down here ever heard of a detainee being abused, but I've seen the soldiers and sailors get abused," Staff Sgt. Thomas Garcia said. "[Detainees] throw some of the most unmentionable cocktails. They urinate on [the guards]. They spit. They call them names."
On Dec. 7, the U.S. military transferred the first group of al Qaeda detainees to a new $37 million 178-cell maximum-security prison designed to prevent attacks on guards. The facility has been reserved for prisoners deemed by the military to be the least compliant.
"As a commander, I don't like my folks being in danger every day," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kris Winter said.
Guards have been routinely pelted with feces by inmates and face physical attacks from al Qaeda detainees. In May, al Qaeda detainees organized an ambush to stop a search of cells for contraband medication following two suicide attempts. Prison authorities have responded by providing inmates with a huge Arabic library, a modern hospital, sporting facilities and satellite television. Officials said Harry Potter in Arabic was one of the most popular books in Camp Delta.
Sgt. Garcia of the Maryland Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 110th Field Artillery, said guards maintain a professional attitude in the face of provocations by al Qaeda inmates. He said the al Qaeda operatives then send messages that they were being tortured. The Pentagon has been allowing guards at Guantanamo to discuss their work in an effort to combat the image of Camp Delta, which has been visited by 1,000 journalists. Officials said independent investigations have not confirmed allegations of misconduct and often Guantanamo has been confused with Camp X-Ray, which was open for four months in 2002.
"There's always the misconception that we're somehow beating these detainees and doing heinous things to them, and that is simply not the case," said Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of JTF-GTMO.
Much of the allegations about Guantanamo have been spread by human rights activists. Aryeh Neier, president of the New York-based Open Society Institute and former executive director of Human Rights Watch, termed Guantanamo "one of America's worst violations."
A U.S. sailor and block guard, who could not be identified for security reasons, said prison staff members are ordered to fill a range of dietary requests that seek to adapt to the religion and culture of the inmates.
"If a guy's salad isn't right, I'll make a phone call to try and get him the correct salad," said the 28-year-old guard, who is also a member of a task force.
The block guard recalled being attacked by a "cocktail" of feces, semen, blood and urine thrown by an inmate. He said guards are ordered to walk away.
"It's humiliating," the guard said. "A guy throws feces on you, and you've got to turn right back around and walk down a block that might have 40 people on it. They're making their little comments, and you go home and you change and you come back to work. Take a shower. Go to medical, get your screening."
Officials said al Qaeda inmates have attacked American guards on a daily basis. During the 12-month period that ended in August 2006, authorities reported 3,232 incidents of detainee misconduct. They included 432 assaults with bodily fluids, 227 physical assaults and 99 efforts to incite a disturbance or riot.
"This is serious stuff," Adm. Harris said. "And yet the guard force and the intelligence people maintain a remarkable degree of restraint and equilibrium. The young Americans that work here are doing a spectacular job in a dangerous place."
Officials said most guards are not allowed to handle Korans or other religious and cultural items for the inmates. The Korans, prayer beads and Islamic rugs are stored in a 300-foot long building similar to a small aircraft hangar.
Al Qaeda inmates have been taught to lie about Camp Delta and claim torture. Officials cited a terrorist training manual known as the Manchester Document and seized by British authorities in 2000. The manual directs al Qaeda operatives to make false claims of torture and mistreatment. More than 340 people have been released from Camp Delta.
“They're out there walking around spewing forth all manner of lies and evil things and distortions, but the fact is that they're released," Adm. Harris said.