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How Did Guantanamo Become a Prison?

In August 2004, a special panel set up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to investigate American abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq reported that"Interrogation techniques intended only for Guantánamo came to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq." (1) By this time, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib had helped to force the first U.S. concession of any rights at all for the hundreds of"unlawful combatants" confined in zoo-like cages at the U.S. naval base on Cuba's strategic Guantánamo Bay. The profound historical connections between Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib are filled with revealing ironies.

Ever since New Year's Day of 1959 when the Cuban Revolution took power, Washington has promoted"freedom and democracy" for Cuba. Yet, in the one section of Cuba occupied by U.S. military forces, Washington has instead created a prison that has become notorious around the world.

In 1902, when Cuba was still under military occupation by U.S. troops who had invaded ostensibly to bring freedom, the nation was forced to incorporate Washington's Platt Amendment into its constitution. The Platt Amendment gave the United States the right to lease a 45-square-mile area at Guantánamo Bay. The lease specifies that the area is"for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose." (2)

Use of the base as a prison began in November 1991. After the first overthrow of the elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, this time under the first Bush Administration, Washington announced it would build a"tent shelter" at Guantánamo for thousands of Haitians fleeing the military dictatorship. (3) The"shelter" was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by U.S. troops.

When forced repatriation began in February 1992, the argument used by the George H. W. Bush administration presaged the 2004 argument before the Supreme Court by the George W. Bush administration: the detainees were not entitled to any U.S. rights because they were being held on territory under the sovereignty of Cuba. (4)

In June 1993, when only HIV refugees along with their relatives remained, a federal judge ordered the camp closed, calling it"nothing more than an HIV prison camp," where,"surrounded by razor barbed wire" and"subjected to pre-dawn military sweeps," people lived under continual threat of abuse by"400 soldiers in full riot gear." (5) However, thousands of Haitians were again detained at Guantánamo in 1994, leading to uprisings. (6)

At the same time, Washington built a huge tent city surrounded by barbed wire to detain Cubans who were attempting to reach the United States. Miserable conditions led some Cuban detainees to attempt suicide. Their numerous uprisings were met by U.S. troops in riot gear with fixed bayonets. Some Cubans managed to escape back to unoccupied Cuba by scaling the barbed wire, climbing down a 40-foot cliff and swimming about a mile to Cuban territory. Children suffered from bronchial viruses, pneumonia, diarrhea, and fear. (7) On January 18, 1995, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that detainees at Guantánamo could be forcibly repatriated because constitutional rights"bind the government only when the refugees are at or within the borders of the United States." (8)

The way was paved for creation of Camp X-Ray, a prison for captives in President George W. Bush's"War on Terror." The first captives arrived from Kandahar, 8,000 miles away, on January 11, 2002, to be incarcerated in wire cages. The Defense Department labeled them"unlawful combatants," not"prisoners of war," in order to disregard rights guaranteed to POWs by the Geneva Conventions. On January 16, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stated that the captives are prisoners of war entitled to rights protected by the Geneva Conventions. (9)

On January 20, 2002, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asked Washington to explain the photograph that went around the world showing captives kneeling on the ground in leg shackles and handcuffs with eyes, ears, and mouths covered and wearing mittens in the tropical heat. The Mail captioned one photo"Tortured." (10) Among more than 600 prisoners from 43 countries, 27 tried to kill themselves by June 2003. (11) The International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations argued for POW status. (12)

More than two years later, when the Defense Department delivered five British citizens from Guantánamo to British custody, British prosecutors released all of them without charges the following day. (13) The men described being repeatedly beaten and subjected to solitary confinement in the sensory deprivation isolation wing. Guards staged races of detainees in short leg shackles, violently punishing them if they fell. Under pressure one of the three confessed to being the man in a videotape with Osama Bin Laden, but British intelligence later proved he was in England at the time. A Swede released in July 2004 said,"They put me in the interrogation room and used it as a refrigerator" where he sat in chains for 12 to 14 hours, partially losing the feeling in one foot. Deprived of sleep, he was assailed with flashes of light in a dark room, loud music and noise. (14)

The CIA's"Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual--1983" justifies" coercive techniques" when subjects resist noncoercive techniques. It points out that pain inflicted"from outside himself" may be less effective than"pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself." If"required to maintain rigid positions" for a long period, the source of pain becomes not the interrogator but the prisoner himself."After a period of time the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength." (15)

In December 2002 Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, overseer of captives at Guantánamo, requested that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approve a number of"nondoctrinal" interrogation tactics, some of which he had already used on"unlawful combatants" at Guantánamo. These included hooding, physical contact like poking or grabbing, and 20-hour interrogations. Rumsfeld approved a list of 17, withdrew the list in January and approved a revised list of 24 in April 2003 for use only at Guantánamo. (16) Then, in August 2003, Gen. Miller led"intelligence specialists" to Iraq where some officers who met with him believe tortures at Abu Ghraib were"partly rooted" in Miller's"determination to apply his Guantánamo experience in Iraq." (17) In October, at the urging of Gen. Miller, the Defense Department sent intelligence teams from Guantánamo to train teams at Abu Ghraib for 90 days, the period when the worst prison abuses occurred. (18)

More than two years after Washington established Guantánamo as a site where the United States could hold prisoners of the"War on Terror" indefinitely without allowing them any rights, the public was shocked to discover what such captivity could mean. On April 28, 2004, CBS television aired the first of those graphic photographs of U.S. guards torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This set off a string of further exposures, including CIA secret detentions at prisons known and unknown around the globe. Which in turn led to that August 2004 report to Rumsfeld by his own committee that"Interrogation techniques intended only for Guantánamo came to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq."

What does the future hold for Cuban land occupied by Washington? One official speculated that a new prison being built at Guantánamo could hold the CIA's secret detainees, the disappeared, indefinitely.(19)


1. Carlotta Gall and David Rohde,"Afghan Abuse Charges Raise New Questions on Authority," New York Times,September 17, 2004. Appointed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the panel was headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger.

2. "Agreement Between the United States and Cuba for the Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval Stations; February 23, 1903," Washington, U.S. Govt. Printing Office. The U.S. Treasury Department sends a check each year for $4,085 for"leasing" the land, but Cuba, which continues to demand that Washington cease its occupation of Cuban territory, has not cashed a check since 1958.

3. "Pentagon to build refugee camp at Cuba base," AP, November 25, 1991.

4. Barbara Crossette,"U.S. Starts Return of Haiti Refugees After Justices Act," New York Times, February 2, 1992; Barbara Crossette,"Lawyers Say U.S. Has Lost Haitian Refugee Files," New York Times, April 8, 1992. See"In the Supreme Court of the United States," Shafiq Rasul, et al., Petitioners, v. George W. Bush, President of the United States, et al., No. 03-334, April 20, 2004. On June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the captives are imprisoned in territory over which the United States does exercise exclusive jurisdiction and control and they have the right to be heard before a judge or other neutral decision-maker. At the base, beginning on August 24, 2004, the Defense Department held its first military tribunal hearing since the end of World War II; the procedure ended with four human-rights monitors asking that the Bush administration"scrap the whole experiment" (Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2004).

5. "HIV-infected Haitians Gain Release as Judge Lashes at Administrations," [Newark NJ] Star-Ledger, June 9, 1993.

6. Eric Schmitt,"Haiti Refugees and U.S. Force Clash in Cuba," New York Times, August 15, 1994.

7. J. Scott Orr,"Boiling Point: Guantánamo Seethes with Tension," Star-Ledger, September 3, 1994;"Cubans Protest at Guantánamo," AP, September 10, 1994;"Cuban Killed in Accident During Protest," New York Times, September 13, 1994; Jim Loney,"`Let the Children Go,' Cuban Refugees Say," Reuters, November 7, 1994;"Cubans Attempt Escape from Refugee Camp," Reuters, November 8, 1994;"39 Cuban Refugees Flee Guantánamo," AP, November 8, 1994.

8. "Court Backs Refugees' Return," AP, January 18, 1995. Haitians were forcibly repatriated. The detention of Cubans was resolved through negotiations between Washington and Havana in May 1995. For more on these negotiations, see Franklin, Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History (New York and Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1997). Some Cubans continue to be sent to Guantánamo and detained until their requests for asylum are decided.

9. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,"Statement of High Commissioner for Human Rights on Detention of Taliban and Al Qaida Prisoners at US Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba," January 16, 2002.

10. CNN.com report, January 21, 2002, posted 5:18 am EST.

11. Carol Rosenberg,"Guantánamo Prisoner's Attempt to Kill Himself Most Serious Yet," Miami Herald, February 2, 2003; Manuel Roig-Franzia,"Guantánamo Was Prepared for Suicide Attempts," Washington Post, March 2, 2003;"United States: Suicide Attempts," Reuters report in New York Times, May 29, 2003.

12. John Hassell,"U.S. Takes Heat on Guantánamo," Star-Ledger, October 20, 2002.

13. "Britain Frees 5 Citizens Sent Home from U.S. Jail," Reuters report in New York Times, March 11, 2004.

14. See"How We Survived Jail Hell," Interview by David Rose, The Observer, March 14, 2004; Jan Strupczewski,"Freed Swede Says He was Tortured in Guantánamo," Reuters, July 14, 2004; Desmond Butler,"Three Britons Allege Abuses at Guantánamo," AP, August 4, 2004.

15. "Torture Was Taught by CIA," Baltimore Sun, January 27, 1997. This report was released January 24, 1997, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Baltimore Sun on May 26, 1994.

16. John Hendren,"Rumsfeld Okayed Harsher Methods of Interrogation," Los Angeles Times, reprinted in Star-Ledger, May 21, 2004; Amanda Ripley,"Redefining Torture," Time, June 21, 2004; Carlotta Gall and David Rohde,"Afghan Abuse Charges Raise New Questions on Authority," New York Times,September 17, 2004.

17. "General Took Guantanamo Rules to Iraq for Handling of Prisoners," New York Times, May 13, 2004.

18. Douglas Jehl and Andrea Elliott,"Cuba Base Sent Its Interrogators to Iraqi Prison: Teams Went to Instruct G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib," New York Times, May 29, 2004.

19. James Risen, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis,"Harsh C.I.A. Methods Cited in Top Qaeda Interrogations: Secret Rules Allow Coercion, but Concerns Are Seen in Agency Over Abuses," New York Times, May 13, 2004.

This article was first published by Historians Against the War.