Commander Discusses Perceptions of Guantanamo
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 27, 2007 The men being held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, would kill again if given the chance, U.S. officials have said. More than 2,000 U.S. servicemembers and civilians ensure the terrorists at the detention facility don’t get a chance to launch more attacks, said Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen of the command ensure the safe and humane detention of enemy combatants and the gathering of intelligence for the global war on terror, the admiral said. “We are going to continue to do that as effectively and efficiently as we can without getting anyone hurt,” he added.
About 370 enemy combatants are being held in the facilities. These are men taken off the battlefields primarily in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. They are fighters, facilitators, financiers, couriers or people involved with organizations such as the Taliban and al Qaeda that are conducting operations against U.S. or coalition forces.
“They were apprehended there and brought to us so we could keep them off the battlefield and gain intelligence from them,” Buzby said.
The admiral doesn’t doubt the detainees wish more harm to America. “I haven’t found a one yet who salutes the colors when we raise the flag in the morning,” he said wryly.
“We are keeping them off the battlefield,” the admiral said. “What is unique about this situation is that in a time of war we’re actually transferring many of them out of this facility -- many back to their own countries for release or to go into custody in their own countries.” To date, the United States has returned 405 men to their own or other countries.
The detainees also are a source of strategic intelligence. Many have been detained for more than five years, and their tactical value is virtually nonexistent, Buzby said. But they still know the people in the organizations, and they give insight into the way al Qaeda works and how the Taliban is organized. U.S. officials gain a better understanding of how the organization fits together, which helps leaders counter threats of the future, he explained.
The mere mention of Guantanamo conjures up allegations of torture and detainee abuse, but Buzby said the facility’s practices have been in keeping with Defense Department policies.
“We tend to get wrapped up in the greater discussion of detainees down here with those detained elsewhere,” Buzby said. “There have been many, many investigations conducted of the conditions in Guantanamo, … and they found no deviations from standing DoD policies.”
Buzby said only two or three allegations leveled at Guantanamo personnel have ever been proven, and “they were very, very minor – procedural vs. an actual act. All the reports that I have read prior to coming to the job say that ‘Gitmo’ has been doing it correctly from the start.”
The Americans in the Joint Task Force do a tough job very well, the admiral said. The troops serve 12-hour shifts -- four days on followed by two-days off. The day shift begins at 5:15 each morning at guard mount, where daily training covers fine points of the detention mission. At guard mount, the troops discuss the plan for the day and any incidents from the previous watch. Then they move to their tiers, their watch posts or stations and do a turnover with the previous shift.
The guards take meals to the detainees and take the detainees to their recreation time, hospital visits and commission appearances. All the cells have to be searched every day. “Our guards, in the course of walking their tier, walk 10 to 12 miles a day,” Buzby said.
The admiral said the guards are in a battle of wills with the detainees. “Some of the detainees throw bodily fluids on the guards or spit on them,” he said. “These troops are amazing. They are fantastic. I don’t know if I could put up with what they put up with and keep on doing the mission every day.”
The detention facilities are a far cry from the original camp set up in 2002. The temporary facility at Camp X-Ray – which still shows up in some video footage on television news reports – is closed, the admiral said. It is totally overgrown. The facilities today are comparable to facilities in the United States.
“Our two newest facilities – Camps 5 and 6 – are modeled after county and state facilities that exist in Michigan and Indiana,” he said. They meet all specifications for detention: climate control, safety devices and safety for the guard force.
The members of the joint task force live in former family housing at Guantanamo. Buzby said the command works closely with local base officials to improve the quality of life.
The admiral said the response to a detainee’s suicide provided his most memorable experience since assuming command just over a month ago.
“I was impressed with the way the folks responded: from the guards who attempted first aid (to) the medical people who tried to revive him,” he said. “The guard force worked together to ensure nothing else occurred. … I knew then how professional a force I had under my command. I am honored to serve with them.”