ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
On this day 16 years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be used to hold captives from the war on terror. Rumsfeld described it...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD RUMSFELD: As the least worst place we could have selected.
SIEGEL: One prison there known as Camp 7 has been off-limits for a long time. Its exact location is classified. Camp 7 is home to 14 captives known as high-value detainees. Even their lawyers could not set foot there. NPR's David Welna tells us how that's changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS CLOSING)
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On a sunny Sunday afternoon earlier this month, a small group of reporters climbs into a military van. We've been promised a tour of the seaside zone where Guantanamo's prison camps are located. At the wheel was an Army sergeant whose name for security reasons cannot be mentioned.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So now we are on the - in the detention center zone. To the right, there is a value of the week. Today it's honor.
WELNA: At the roadside is a sign with a placard reading honor. Ahead lies a compound surrounded by high fences topped with coils of razor wire.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, so we're coming up on Camps 5 and 6 right now as we go through this gate. And this is where the detainees are currently held.
WELNA: And where is Camp 7?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).
WELNA: The sergeant defers to Commander Anne Leanos, the prison camp's new spokesperson.
COMMANDER ANNE LEANOS: You probably know that's where we keep - you know, the high-value detainees...
WELNA: Oh, absolutely.
LEANOS: ...Are kept. And typically we don't talk about operations at that camp, so sorry.
WELNA: Nearly everything about Camp 7 is a state secret. This much is known. Its 14 inmates were all previously held elsewhere for years in secret prisons run by the CIA. A Senate investigation found they were brutally interrogated at these so-called black sites. What life was like in Camp 7, though, nobody could really say until recently.
WALTER RUIZ: I'm Walter Ruiz, and I represent Mustafa al-Hawsawi.
WELNA: Ruiz, a former Navy lawyer, represents the alleged money man in the 9/11 attacks. For eight years, he sought to see where his client was locked up. In July, the military judge granted Ruiz's request to visit Camp 7 over opposition from government prosecutors who seek death sentences for Hawsawi and four alleged coconspirators.
RUIZ: We wanted 48 hours of access to the prison, and the judge very famously remarked, so you want to have a - you want to sleep with your client. And I told him, no, I don't want to sleep with him, but I wouldn't mind sharing a cell next to him.
WELNA: The judge did allow Ruiz and two associates 12 hours' access, but military authorities made certain Camp 7's actual location remained secret.
RUIZ: We were put on a large bus where the windows were all closed off with, like, different material, and there was a shower curtain in the front the bus that prevented us from seeing out the front of the bus. They had the air conditioning on super high, and there was music playing. So (laughter) we felt like they were trying to disorient and dislocate us.
WELNA: When Ruiz finally got to Camp 7, it was, as he put it, a let-down.
RUIZ: It's just so overhyped, right? It's the secret prison on the heavily militarized base where they keep the worst of the worst. And when you get there, it's just, like, this kind of beaten down, broken down county-jail-looking kind of thing.
WELNA: Ruiz found his client awash in documents from his war court case.
RUIZ: It looked like an episode of "Hoarders." I mean, you had just boxes and boxes stacked on and the walls.
WELNA: For Ruiz, the photos and measurements he took in Camp 7 could help his client from being executed if convicted.
RUIZ: One of the arguments may be that the facility is adequate to keep him secure, and therefore the death penalty is not appropriate. He can be kept under conditions that protect the public.
WELNA: Having seen this Camp 7, do you have any better understanding about why it is such a secret?
RUIZ: I don't know why it is.
WELNA: In an email, a Pentagon spokesperson wrote that Camp 7's location is classified, quote, "to prevent against the unauthorized disclosure of national security information and to provide for appropriate security arrangements for the detainees located there."
JAMES CONNELL: I didn't see anything that would suggest that unusual secrecy was required.
WELNA: James Connell also visited Camp 7. He is the lead attorney for Ammar al-Baluchi, another 9/11 defendant and high-value detainee. Connell thinks the real reason for all the secrecy is because those locked up there can reveal what the CIA did to them.
CONNELL: The high value in the high-value detainee does not refer to either any information that they had prior to their abduction or to their role in any act of terrorism. The high value refers to their possession of information about the CIA torture program.
WELNA: Despite the veil being at least partially lifted on what's in it, Camp 7's location remains a state secret. When I asked the Pentagon to visit the lockup, the answer was no. David Welna, NPR News, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.