Guantanamo Detainees Still Yielding Valuable Intelligence

By Kathleen T. Rhem

Intelligence analysts observe interrogations remotely from this room in Camp 5, the new state-of-the-art detention and intelligence facility at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem / DoD Photo

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — A bearded man with close-cropped hair sits shackled in a nondescript room. The man appears middle-aged and Middle Eastern, and is wearing rubber flip-flops and orange clothing that resembles hospital “scrubs.”

He is sitting on a black, padded folding chair, calmly doing stretching exercises within the limits of his restraints. Handcuffs are attached to a chain belt around his waist, and his leg irons are attached to an iron ring in the gray cement floor.

The small room is brightly lit and appears spotlessly clean. A table in the corner is empty, except for a few bottles of water.

This scene played out in mid-February in an interrogation room in Camp 5, the state-of-the-art detention and interrogation facility completed here in 2004. After agreeing to strict ground rules, reporters were allowed to view the interrogation via a video feed from a remote location and with the sound turned off.

A few minutes earlier, three Army military police officers with the names on their uniforms covered with tape had escorted the man into the room. They appeared to exchange polite niceties, and the detainee seemed to be familiar with the process. He even assisted the MPs in correctly fastening the shackles through the chair and into the ring on the floor.

After the detainee sat alone for about five minutes, stretching, examining his fingernails and gazing around the room, the MPs came in again, removed the shackles and handcuffs, and left. One individual, wearing black combat boots, green camouflage pants and a brown T-shirt, stayed in the room and pulled up another chair directly in front of the detainee.

For at least 20 minutes the two men appeared to speak casually. The reporters were escorted out before the session was finished, but during the observed period, neither man appeared irritated or angry at any time. The detainee sat with his legs comfortably crossed, and once he stood and rested a leg on the seat of the chair. At times he gestured animatedly. The two men smiled at each other occasionally and even appeared to chuckle once.

During an interview a few days later, another interrogator, who asked not to be identified by name for security reasons, explained that interrogation sessions often are just comfortable conversations.

Trust, he said, is the secret to success in interrogations.

“How are you going to provide information if you don’t trust somebody?” he asked. “When you’re a kid, they say don’t talk to strangers. So my personal feelings are that if I’m culturally aware, respectful and cognizant of what’s going on around me and what this person might be going through, that helps me.”

He acknowledged that different interrogators have different styles. For instance, in the observed interrogation session, no interpreter was present. Either the interrogator spoke a foreign language or the detainee spoke English. Security experts escorting the media did not reveal which.

However, the interrogator who was interviewed, an Army sergeant, said he always has an interpreter in the room as a sign of respect for the detainee. “I realize that maybe some of these guys don’t want to look at me or speak to me in English. So I always have an interpreter with me at all times to give them that respect — cultural respect,” he said. “I don’t expect them to speak English to me. I know if I was in their situation, I’d want somebody speaking English to me, so I try to afford them that same respect.”

It’s also important to know as much as possible about the individual detainee and his background, and to use the best approach that would work with each individual.

The sergeant said it’s important to remember that people are all different. “You take somebody from Boston and you take somebody from the Deep South,” and there are many differences, he said.

This interrogator said the sales business is a perfect example of why it’s important to tailor the approach depending on the individual. A salesman approaching an elderly lady in a car lot is going to take many things into account: “What do you think she’s going to want to buy? How are you going to approach that individual? What do you think motivates her? Is she just looking for transportation?” he said. That the same salesman, he added, would take a much different approach with a teenager looking for a car.

The nature of information gleaned from detainees here has changed considerably over time, explained Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

“Initially we had a lot to do to learn about the nature of our detainees. Many of them used aliases; many of them were not forthcoming with us in describing who they were and what their activities on the battlefield were,” Hood said in an interview. “But over the last couple years, we’ve gained a great deal of information on them and intelligence from them. And I think now we are probably more focused in our intelligence-gathering effort in those areas where we know that they can still provide us valuable information.”

Even after three years in detention, detainees still are providing valuable intelligence “in terms of how al Qaeda, the Taliban and other related terrorist organizations fund themselves, how they recruited, how they trained people, how they’re organized, how they plan operations, how they command and control those operations,” Hood said.

Esteban Rodriguez, director of the Joint Intelligence Group, explained further. “We have many individuals that have a lot of knowledge on everything from modus operandi to financing to all kinds of areas that don’t really change over time much,” he said. “Also, we have individuals that have a lot of background and knowledge on the area of operations that we conduct all over the global war on terrorism and knowledge of terrain. … Those things don’t go away either.”

Rodriguez said experts “gain valuable intelligence practically every day” from the detainees here. “Some of it, of course, is simply small pieces of the puzzle that we’re able to answer,” he said. “And some has actually been critical, timely information to support ongoing operations.”

Specific examples of how intelligence gained here has helped in the war on terror are classified, he said. “But,” he added, “I can tell you that we’ve gained intelligence that on occasions have led to support of real-time, ongoing operations in the global war on terrorism.”

Sometimes, Rodriguez said, interrogators here get “directed requirements” to ask specific questions.

In the interrogation session that was observed, the interrogator showed the detainee two photographs of individuals. It was impossible to tell if the photos were of the same individual, and again, security officials did not elucidate. But this seemed to be an example of a directed requirement.

One thing that has not changed over time is the diligence with which the interrogators and military police here try to guard the safety of the detainees. Hood was adamant that the type of abuse that was uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq “is not occurring here.”

“In light of what we saw at Abu Ghraib, the members of the joint task force, but specifically the members of the Joint Intelligence Group and the Joint Detention Operations Group — those who deal most closely with the enemy combatants — they have worked very hard, very diligently to see that what we do here and the manner in which we do it, every American could be proud of,” he said.

Hood said the leaders of the joint task force have built numerous checks into the system that immediately would bring any mistreatment of detainees to light. “We have a whole series of checks for literally everything we do here in the joint task force, but specifically with any actions that involve detainees,” he said. “We are constantly checking to see that we maintain standards in terms of how we deal with the detainees.”

For example, he said, guards on the cellblocks have their own chain of command to ensure proper procedures are followed. But in addition, noncommissioned officers from outside the guards’ chain of command periodically inspect the area and go through a checklist.

“What you see generally is a very disciplined, a very proud, a very well-trained group of young men and women who are working under difficult circumstances every day to do their job on behalf of the nation as best as they possibly can,” Hood said.

The interrogator who was interviewed seemed genuinely offended by abuse allegations and said he resents that he and his coworkers have to defend their mission. “It seems so sad,” he said. “As far as I’ve been here, I’ve not seen anything bad go on, nothing at all whatsoever.

“I honestly believe in this mission,” the sergeant continued. “I believe that we are doing the right thing and that we need to continue to do that. Because once we let up, it’s going to show weakness, and I don’t think that that’s something that we need to show as a country, as a military, as individuals.”