Visiting the Prison at Guantanamo Bay

Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel talks with Renee Montagne about his recent three-day visit to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hundreds of detainees, many picked up in Afghanistan, are held at the facility.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel spent three days this week visiting the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of terror suspects are being held. I spoke with him yesterday about what he'd heard and seen.

TED KOPPEL reporting:

I've been in a lot of prison situations over the years, both civilian prisons back in the United States and military prisons around the world, and there is one thing that is almost uniformly true and that is when men or women are incarcerated they don't look anywhere near as dangerous as they might if you were meeting them in a different situation in which they were holding a weapon.

For the most part, these are practicing Muslims. The men all have long beards. They wear the head covering. They look all right. It is an intensely boring kind of situation and many of these men are kept, you know, the ones who are -the word that is used over and over again is compliant. Those men who follow orders, those men who are receptive to the interrogations, those men who provide good intelligence, get better treatment than those who are not.

Many of them are allowed to live in communal quarters while the others are kept in individual cells.

MONTAGNE: Were you able to ascertain how much information about the current debate is reaching the detainees themselves?

KOPPEL: My assumption would be that they are well informed. First of all, you have to understand that there are a number of habeas corpus lawyers down here to represent some of these detainees, and they will communicate some of that information to their clients who in turn communicate it to the others. So I think they have a pretty effective grapevine and know very well what's going on.

Indeed, the overall commander of the camp, Rear Admiral Harris, makes the point that the communication between and among detainees here is actually problematic.

MONTAGNE: And that, again, was Rear Admiral Harry Harris?

KOPPEL: That's correct.

MONTAGNE: I gather that you spent at least an evening talking with interrogators there. Is it clear to them what interrogation techniques are permitted and also who decides?

KOPPEL: Absolutely. I mean, at this point, I don't think there's any ambiguity about it. The chief interrogator, who is man with many, many years of experience, says that in the early days they had very young and very inexperienced interrogators.

In a sense, I find that part of the argument to be a little bit disingenuous because, as we all know from documents that have been leaked or have been acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, questions were raised up the line back to the Pentagon and as far as the Secretary of Defense's office asking for permission to employ harsher interrogation techniques.

So the implication that some of this happened because of inexperienced or young interrogators who didn't quite know what they were doing doesn't strike me as very compelling.

MONTAGNE: There are those who would consider as a form of torture open-ended detentions. Most of these prisoners are still in a legal limbo with no end in sight.

KOPPEL: Believe me, that's a problem that is plaguing the people who run this camp and those who will ultimately have to make the decision whether or not to close it. There is no doubt that some of these detainees - Rear Admiral Harris would argue, all of them - but that some of these detainees represent a threat if they were to be released.

But if they are not to be released, where are they to be held? There are some men among the detainees who probably not only can be but should be released. And, indeed, some of the 750 who've been held here over the past four and a half years have been released.

Having said that, Admiral Harris adamantly says there has not been a single innocent man who has been kept here at Guantanamo. I find that extraordinarily difficult to believe, but that is what he says.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel speaking from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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