MICHELE NORRIS, host:
We turn now to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It's not the easiest assignment in the world. For the past two years, Army Major General Jay Hood has been commander of the U.S. Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay. Hood's tenure has been marked by a series of scandals and a continuing controversy over the Bush Administration's policy on detention and interrogation. In the next few weeks, Hood winds up his assignment. NPR's national security correspondent, Jackie Northam, spoke with him about his time at Guantanamo.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
There was controversy over Guantanamo Bay long before Major General Jay Hood stepped off the plane two years ago. But that controversy was ratcheted up one week after he arrived, when the prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison broke. Hood's predecessor at Guantanamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller, was implicated in the scandal. Although the abuse happened in Iraq, it didn't take long before a huge spotlight swung toward Guantanamo Bay. Hood says since then the detention operations at the base have been under constant scrutiny.
Major General JAY HOOD (Commander, U.S. Detention Center, Guantanamo Bay): There have been so many wild and outrageous statements that have appeared in the media, which would indicate that we were abusive, coercive, torturous sort of group. The idea that we have rogue guards roaming around who might beat or abuse detainees is simply absurd.
NORTHAM: But a cloud continues to hang over Guantanamo, stemming from several damning reports regarding abusive and coercive interrogation techniques, mostly from the early days, before Hood arrived. Some detainees who have been released recently say prisoners at Guantanamo are still subject to harsh questioning. The 52-year-old Hood, who grew up in an Army family, says under his watch, interrogators use only techniques laid out in the Army Field Manual. Hood adds that over the past few months interrogators haven't questioned many of the detainees.
Major General HOOD: A number of detainees, very obviously acting on advice of their legal counsel in habeas litigation cases, have been told whatever you do, don't talk to the Americans. Don't tell them anything. And that group, I think, is certainly less cooperative.
NORTHAM: Hood says interrogators are focusing their efforts on about a quarter of the prisoners, who have what he calls high intelligence value. The question that often comes up is what possible relevant information could a detainee have after four years of incarceration? Hood says you'd be surprised.
Major General HOOD: What is important that is gathered today and this week and this month are pieces of information that help us better understand terrorist organizations. How they recruit, how they move around the globe, how they're financed, how they command and control operations.
NORTHAM: Hood is often riled up by the persistent questions about the usefulness of intelligence being gathered at Guantanamo. Perhaps that's why he allowed a peek at some new evidence.
Major General HOOD: Jackie, we're going to go in and look here in a minute at what's called our evidence locker. It's a...
NORTHAM: This evidence locker is a long, low building that overlooks the blue waters of the Caribbean. For the first time, a journalist is allowed to go inside. Metal shelves crammed with dark green boxes fill the cavernous room. In them are more than 120,000 documents.
Major General HOOD: Captured telephone records, captured notebooks with all sorts of engineering data in them, both real and forged money.
NORTHAM: General Hood says when the detainees were captured about four years ago, the evidence was gathered up and stuffed into garbage bags and boxes.
Major General HOOD: It was hastily inventoried, stacked up, sealed and was transported here to Guantanamo. Frankly, it's just in the last year that we've been able to take a closer look at exactly what we've got here.
NORTHAM: Hood says they're finding that some of the detainees they thought were low-level players in fact held more important positions in the Taliban and al- Qaida. Hood is unapologetic about Guantanamo. He says if he felt there were no intelligence value or if the detainees could all be safely integrated back into their societies, then he would tell his chain of command.
Major General HOOD: That's not what I'm saying. What I'm telling you is that there are a group of men here who are extremely bright, extremely well- educated, who are very familiar in the West, many of them who have extraordinary financial resources back home. And many of them who have looked us in the eyeball and said, when I get out of here, I'm going to kill you.
NORTHAM: But there are chronic complaints that some of the detainees being held are innocent goat farmers or the like, and have not been given their due legal process. Only 10 of the nearly 500 remaining prisoners have been charged. For Hood, solving those issues are, in military parlance, out of his lane. He is dealing with detainees finding ways to protest their open-ended detentions. Since August, many detainees have staged a hunger strike.
General Hood has come under sharp, widespread criticism for his decision to force feed the detainees with the use of a restraining chair. Hood defends the decision, saying he will not allow one of the detainees to become a martyr, thereby creating more pressure to close the camp.
Major General HOOD: Imagine, if you will, if we simply allowed them, contrary to U.S. law, to kill themselves. What would that mean to the rest of the Islamic world? You have Muslims dying at Guantanamo Bay.
NORTHAM: General Hood will leave this and other problems behind when he wraps up his assignment in the next few weeks. He has not been told where he goes next.
Jackie Northam, NPR News.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: