GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — During a tour of the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists on Saturday, House Republicans and Democrats, including one who has advocated closing the facility, said the United States has made progress in improving conditions and protecting detainees’ rights.
The U.S. lawmakers witnessed interrogations, toured cellblocks and ate the same lunch given to detainees on the first congressional visit to the prison for suspected terrorists since criticism of it intensified in the spring. A Senate delegation also was visiting this weekend.
“The Guantanamo we saw today is not the Guantanamo we heard about a few years ago,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif.
Still, lawmakers from both parties agree more still must be done to ensure an adequate legal process is in place to handle detainee cases. In the meantime, said Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., “I think they’re doing the best they can to define due process here.”
Republicans and Democrats alike fear the prison at the U.S. Navy base in eastern Cuba is hurting the United States’ image because of claims that interrogators have abused and tortured inmates. The White House and Pentagon say conditions are humane and detainees are well-treated.
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After getting a classified briefing from base commanders, the House delegation ate lunch with troops — the same meal of chicken with orange sauce, rice and okra that detainees were served. They then toured several of the barbed-wire camps where detainees are housed, viewing small cells, dusty recreation yards and common areas.
From behind one-way mirrors, lawmakers watched interrogators grilling three individual terror suspects. None of the interrogators touched detainees.
In one session, they questioned a man who defense officials said was a Saudi national and admitted al-Qaida member who was picked up in Afghanistan and knew nine of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers. In another, a female interrogator took an unusual approach to wear down a detainee, reading a Harry Potter book aloud for hours. He turned his back and put his hands over his ears.
‘We’ve made progress’
At a communal camp for those given privileges because of good behavior, bearded detainees in white frocks, flip-flops and skull caps quietly lingered near lawmakers, although from behind fences. Later, the detainees played soccer.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is one of many Democrats who have called for an independent commission to investigate abuse allegations and have said the facility should close. She said she stood by that position, but acknowledged, “What we’ve seen here is evidence that we’ve made progress.”
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., questioned the criteria for determining when a detainee can be released. “Perhaps the standard’s been too liberal,” he said, noting that some of those released have returned to the battlefield.
The White House and Pentagon have defended their policies at the prison almost daily in recent weeks.
At a news conference last week, the president went so far as to invite journalists to visit the prison and see that the allegations were false. The Pentagon says about 400 news organizations have toured the prison since it opened.
A small press contingent joined House lawmakers on this weekend’s trip. However, military escorts controlled how much journalists were able to see and hear.
On a tour of one camp occupied by detainees considered “high value” for providing intelligence, detainees in cells were clearly upset at the sound of visitors, shouting foreign words and pounding on closed doors while journalists entered an interrogation room — empty except for a set of handcuffs, a folding chair, a small table and two padded office chairs.
Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of the joint task force at Guantanamo Bay, said he’s made transparency a priority. “It’s probably my best, our best opportunity to set the record straight,” he said.
Last week, human rights investigators for the United Nations urged the U.S. to allow them inside to inspect the facility. They cited “persistent and credible” reports of “serious allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees” as well as arbitrary detentions and violations of rights.
In response, Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN on Thursday that the detainees are well treated, well fed and “living in the tropics.”
The prison on the base in eastern Cuba opened in January 2002 to house foreigners believed to be linked to al-Qaida or the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. officials hoped to gather intelligence from the detainees after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
Bush declared the detainees “enemy combatants,” affording them fewer rights than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Some detainees have been held for three years without being charged with any crimes.
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