updated 8/3/2008 9:05:26 PM ET 2008-08-04T01:05:26

Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay are asking detainees primarily about activity inside the U.S. military prison, the mission commander said, revealing a shift in focus from the wider fight against terrorism.

The information gleaned from detainees is most important to preventing them from hurting themselves or attacking guards, said Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, the top officer at the detention and interrogation center.

"The primary focus is the safety of the detainees as well as the detainee guard force, and that's why we have this intelligence activity," Thomas said Saturday.

The shift reflects the diminishing intelligence value of al-Qaida and Taliban suspects who have been held as long as six years at this isolated U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Critics say the inward focus proves Guantanamo has outlived any purpose.

"Guantanamo has become little more than a holding center for hundreds of men, most of whom will never be charged with a crime and have nothing to offer the U.S. government in the way of actionable intelligence," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch.

Intelligence from inside
Thomas said intelligence from Guantanamo continues to help the U.S. in places such as Afghanistan, but the priority is giving his guards an edge on their own front lines — cell blocks where detainees have coordinated efforts to commit suicide and assault their captors.

Four inmates have committed suicide at Guantanamo, including three who hanged themselves simultaneously in 2006.

A senior member of the guard command, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Hayhurst, said last week that inmates recently created a "disturbance" as a diversion as others attempted to harm themselves. In another facility, roughly 40 guards were involved in quelling a recent protest involving 18 or 19 detainees, he said.

The detention center opened shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and holds about 265 foreign men, many of them described as among America's most dangerous enemies. Although most are held in individual, solid-wall cells, they can shout to one another through slots in their doors and pass messages between chain-link recreation pens.

Pulse on the camp?
As Thomas led reporters on a tour of the prisons, he said speakers playing a noise similar to gurgling water are meant to drown out communication between external recreation yards.

He said the intelligence-gathering program is crucial for understanding the reasons behind prisoner outbursts.

"You always want to make sure you understand the mood of the camp," Thomas said. "If I see a change in behavior, my question then will be, well, is this because of a new procedure I've implemented, or is this just because it's hot outside, or I've got a new rotation of detainee guards?"

Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said the new focus "confirms what professional interrogators have been saying for years: that captured terrorism suspects provide no useful intelligence after the first six months of detention."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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