[This is Part Five of my exclusive interview with “Stashiu,” an Army nurse who worked at Guantánamo, and who spoke on a regular basis with detainees with psychological and/or behavioral problems. Part One is here. Part Two is available here. Part Three is here. Part Four is here.
As before, these posts represent Stashiu’s opinions and experiences, and are not meant to represent anything or anyone else, including the opinions of the U.S. Army. Stashiu wants me to make it clear that nearly everything discussed here has been officially released. As to those parts that are based on his personal experience, he has been careful to respect operational security and confidentiality.
In today’s entry, Stashiu responds to press accounts of life at GTMO, and answers other miscellaneous questions.]
There have been a number of recent press accounts of life at GTMO — some favorable to the U.S., and some not. I asked Stashiu to take a look at some of them to tell me whether he believed they were accurate, based on his stay at Gitmo.
Atrocities: The Comfy Chair and “Smoke a Hooka”
Stashiu confirmed something not everyone realizes: detainees are still being interrogated at GTMO — and are apparently still giving up good information.
What harsh techniques are being used to extract this information? The answer to that question will shock you.
A couple of recent pieces in the media have suggested that some of the detainees actually enjoy their interrogations. For example, in a passage that reminded me of Monty Python’s “Comfy Chair” sketch (from the show about the Spanish Inquisition), Rich Lowry said this:
Interrogators rely on the soft sell. Detainees sit in a La-Z-Boy chair during interrogations, and beverages and movies are available to put them at ease. The most effective interrogator is said to be an older woman who adopts a nurturing attitude.
(All emphasis in this post is mine.)
This allegation was corroborated by Mark Steyn. But for all we know, Steyn was on the same press junket as Lowry. So I asked Stashiu: are the detainees really pampered in interrogations? He said:
For some, they eagerly await days until “reservation” (interrogation) and there are frequently requests to see their interrogator. This is why I said that some fear to return home or they would be killed as traitors. They get to smoke (sometimes 4 or 5 packs at once, uggh!), watch new-release DVDs that have been screened by Intel so they don’t get current events, eat pizza or fast-food, listen to music, smoke a hooka, etc…. The better stuff they give up, the more the interrogators get for them. All of this has been previously released to the public, but you never hear about it in the MSM.
He emphasized that what he knew was based on what the detainees had told him:
I know just a little and it’s hearsay from detainees themselves. We were never allowed contact with the Intel folks. I’m pretty sure I mentioned it before, the leadership/administration didn’t want to give any appearance that the therapeutic relationship would be abused to exploit weaknesses. . . .
That’s also why the Intel folks objected to Colonel Bumgarner’s changes. While it did help settle the camp somewhat, it reduced the motivation to cooperate with interrogators. Just normal give and take between two sides with different objectives. Intel wanted information, Colonel Bumgarner wanted a safe and smooth-running camp. Not always completely compatible because of jihadi leadership influence.
I don’t know who the lady in [Lowry’s] article is. We would have avoided each other by policy.
Volleyball, Basketball, Soccer . . . and Ping Pong
I sent Stashiu a link to an L.A. Times op-ed piece by someone named Moazzam Begg, who has written a book titled Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Stashiu took issue with many of Begg’s claims. For example, Begg says:
Some people think that Amnesty International’s description of the camp as the “gulag of our times” is too harsh. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, for instance, recently rejected the “gulag” label, telling conventions of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion that Guantanamo is more akin to a holiday resort, complete with a volleyball court, basketball court, soccer field and library.
During my years of incarceration, I never once encountered the things Rumsfeld mentioned and never met anyone who had.
Mr. Begg, meet Stashiu. He says:
There was a volleyball court, a basketball court, and a soccer field… all available to detainees who were at the appropriate level in camp. If they were compliant, they were moved to Camp IV (the same one where the fake suicide attempt was used to lure guards into the feces-smeared floor [so the detainees could] assault them).
This was an open area where they had full use of these things, along with ping-pong tables, board games, and a running track (pretty nice one). None of this was for use by guards or other staff, only detainees. Again, all of this has been released to the media but you don’t hear about it.
The library had books in every language spoken by detainees and was for detainees only, but some languages had a limited selection. The library staff would go out to the blocks to checkout books and get books being returned. I don’t know if detainees were ever allowed to go to the library, but it’s possible. I did a lot of work with the library because we used recreational reading as therapy tools. They try very hard to get materials, but funding and the need for screening by Intel makes it a little difficult.
Mr. Begg wrote in his op-ed:
“We cannot allow the terrorists’ lies and myths to be repeated without question or challenge,” Rumsfeld said in his speeches. But where exactly have the “terrorists’ lies and myths” been repeated? Detainees at Guantanamo are denied access to media, human rights groups, U.N. representatives, even family members. The many reports of abuse have come from conscientious U.S. military personnel and FBI and CIA agents appalled by some interrogation techniques and camp conditions. Soldiers have been charged with a range of abuses against detainees, including killings (at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan) that I witnessed.
Stashiu had several things to say about that.
That is very misleading on several points.
First, the vast majority of complaints and allegations have come from detainees through a variety of conduits including the International Committee of the Red Cross, defense lawyers, detainees who were released (and I believe it has been reported that around 20 have been confirmed as returning to the battlefield), and family members receiving letters, among others.
This, incidentally, was the first reaction I had to the op-ed’s claims: haven’t we heard from the detainees themselves in a variety of ways? That fact alone renders Mr. Begg’s op-ed (and his entire book) suspect. Stashiu continued:
Second, the reports of abuse from military personnel are thoroughly investigated and perpetrators are punished. How many jihadis have been punished by peers when they violate the laws of war?
The “Gulag of Our Times”?
Third, to call Guantánamo a “gulag” is not only inaccurate, it’s (in my opinion) reprehensible. In war, under the rules of previous conflicts, anyone found to be an unlawful combatant could be executed on the spot by the decision of the ranking officer. There did not have to be a trial or proof beyond a reasonable doubt, just reasonable suspicion. We (the United States) conduct war to a higher standard of conduct because of our culture’s respect for life and the rule of law. These are the types of things that are used against us, turning our strengths against us.
Currently, we are in Afghanistan and Iraq with the consent of their governments. I believe that, just like Hamas and Hezbollah attacks on Israel, any attack on U.S. Forces is technically an act of war against both the host government and the United States. . . .
Fourth, all anyone has to do is look at what happened at the authentic Soviet-era gulags and compare them to our country’s facilities, operating procedures, and personnel.
To Begg’s argument:
It seems odd, but Rumsfeld lamented in his speeches that too few people will recall how many Medals of Honor were earned in the “war on terror” versus the numbers of detainee abuses. But how can one man’s bravery possibly override the abuse of thousands — or even of one detainee?
That’s like saying one doctor committing malpractice overrides all the good from doctors who save lives and help people. In my opinion, an incredibly stupid statement meant to dismiss Mr. Rumsfeld’s very good point.
Begg also spoke of a Vietnam veteran named Sgt. Foshee who complained to Begg about how the detainees were being treated. Stashiu had no basis to contest that, but reminds readers of a few points regarding the jihadis. His reaction to the op-ed as a whole:
General impression: Mostly propaganda; his claim to have been in solitary much of the time is very suspect. I know it couldn’t have been at GTMO, but he may have been referring to before his arrival in Cuba.
There were certainly activated reservists who were VietNam vets; I knew a couple. That part sounds like it’s mostly true to make the rest more believable.
When GTMO was opened, my understanding is that there was no effort made to disguise names either, so he may very well know SGT Foshee by his name, depending on the timeframe he is talking about.
I would emphasize that, by doctrine, the jihadis are told to: claim innocence; kidnapping; payment of bounties; abuse of all types; and a history of doing humanitarian work such as preaching, teaching children, building schools, etc… The usual monetary figure is a $5000 “bounty” (their word to me) from guys captured in Pakistan, but I heard that from detainees that I knew for a fact were lying through their teeth. While I can’t say if all of those claims were false, I just don’t know of any that were definitely true. I find it interesting that he immediately ties the story to VietNam.
Brutal Training Exercises
I asked Stashiu about this story, which deals with a man who was injured during a training exercise:
[Sean] Baker, a National Guardsman, was working last year as a military policeman in the Guantanamo Bay prison when other MPs injured him during a training drill. It was a drill during which Baker was only obeying orders.
“I was assaulted by these individuals,” says Baker. “Pure and simple.”
The exercise was taped, as all such exercises were — but the tape went missing. The suggestion is that, if we beat one of our own this mercilessly, God only knows what we did to the terrorists. I asked Stashiu about it. He said:
That was from before I got there, but sounds possible. IRF [Immediate Reaction Force] teams were routinely taped and that the tape is missing smells to me.
What the story doesn’t say is that there were cases of IRF teams being assaulted and the team members injured. One of the stories was that a detainee reverse-kicked the first member in line and broke his riot shield in two, then proceeded to lay out the rest of the team. When finished, he sat on the bunk and told the combat-camera “I just wanted to show you I could do it”. That was supposed to be from early on, but I honestly never saw the footage. I always meant to get over to see it, but never did. But several of the guards I worked with swore to me that they had watched it several times during their training.
I don’t think they use “practice” detainees anymore though, at least not that I ever saw or heard of. One of the after-action lessons learned I expect.
That being said, it would still have been an isolated incident and not policy. The goal of every forced cell extraction was zero injuries to detainees or guards. But it wouldn’t be the first time some inexperienced Lieutenant over-estimated his abilities to set up appropriate training. I would have expected the senior NCOs to keep the LT in line (many NCOs have a lot more practical experience than a new Lieutenant), but I don’t even know if it really happened. Just my opinion though.
KSM Comes to Gitmo
I noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was recently transferred to Gitmo. I asked whether Stashiu knew if he would be segregated. What effect might his presence have on other detainees? Stashiu replied:
I wouldn’t assume segregation and there isn’t any solitary confinement. Anything further would be speculation on my part and I assume you’d rather I stick mostly to what I know and saw. There is most likely a completely new rotation of guards and staff by now. I really don’t know anyone there now and doubt anyone working current operations would be free to discuss things, especially someone like KSM.
Cut Off from the Outside World?
I asked Stashiu whether the prisoners are aware of events outside of Gitmo. If so, how? I assume they have no computer access. What about TV? Do they get Al Jazeera, for example?
No TV, radio, or newspapers. Some of the rumors were remarkably accurate as to current events, so they did have some sources of information. I suspected much came from ICRC and defense attorney visits, or [was] possibly overheard from our own personnel, as did many of the people I worked with. Some rumors were hilariously outrageous, but we would not confirm or deny anything they told us, even though we laughed our butts off later. The “news” that Bush had been assassinated brought great joy to the detainees in camp on more than one occasion, although I’m pretty sure that one wasn’t accurate.
There have been accusations recently that prisoners are communicating with each other through their lawyers, or at least by marking notes to each other as legal material and therefore rendering it off limits. I asked Stashiu if he has any thoughts about that. Is it true? Can it be prevented?
Their legal documents are known as “Habeas Mail” and is off-limits except in extreme circumstances and any search must be approved (IIRC) by the Camp Commander and the JTF (Joint Task Force) Commander. Those searches frequently turn up contraband (both weapons and information) when they are done. I have my private opinion about the lawyers and their agendas/loyalties. It could possibly be prevented if Habeas Mail were routinely searched, but I don’t know if that would be legal or completely fair. I would like to know what the policy in our prison system is for legal communications. That may provide the best balance between safety/security and confidentiality.
I had never heard of any females being held at Guantánamo, and asked Stashiu if there are any. He said:
No female detainees in Camp Delta at all, as has been reported in the media. Many of the guard force and medical personnel are female though. No special effort [was] made (as far as I know) to prevent or include females in that assignment.
Detainees: Not All Arabs
In one of our conversations, Stashiu told me that Guantánamo has Chinese and Canadian prisoners. I admit that this surprised me, as I don’t think most people realize that anyone at Gitmo is anything but an Arab terrorist. I asked Stashiu to elaborate on this, and he said:
If you look at CagePrisoners.com, you can get a pretty good overview of who they say is, or has been, at GTMO. It is very slanted, so take descriptions and information with lots of salt, but reading between the lines is possible. In my opinion, the slanting is pretty ham-handed and obvious. Most people are aware, or have been, of David Hicks from Australia. I really can’t detail any specific individuals beyond what is publicly available though, or even how accurate CagePrisoners.com is.
What Are Stashiu’s Favorite Blogs?
I couldn’t help but ask Stashiu when he started reading my blog. I asked whether folks at Gitmo folks read blogs — and if so, which ones. Alas, Stashiu couldn’t shed any light on this, as he didn’t begin reading blogs until he returned to the States:
Never read a blog until the beginning of July. Somebody tipped me off to Protein Wisdom and I was hooked from the night of Deb Frisch’s meltdown. I’ve expanded my reading extensively from that starting point. Your site was bookmarked from the first time I read it and is one of the 8 or 9 (let’s see, PW, you, Teh Squeaky Wheel, Misha, Sweetness and Light, Conservative Fireman, Rightwing Sparkle, Villainous Company) I read every word of daily. There are a couple dozen that I will scan, including Blackfive, LGF, Ace of Spades, Hot Air, and Iowahawk, among others.
The Press and Accuracy
I know that Stashiu has a great deal of disdain for most Big Media journalists. I asked him if he had ever seen journalists at Gitmo, and if so, whether he had talked to any.
Saw them several times and briefly escorted a few. Never gave an interview as they were voluntary and there wasn’t any way I would volunteer. Any that asked me a question got an “I do my job in a way my family would be proud of and that protects American interests” response, no matter how unrelated to the question asked. I neither liked nor trusted them and refused to be baited. Same with ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). My feelings about interviews didn’t come from anything anyone did while I was there. I had just seen too much of what I believed to be inaccurate information come out.
In conclusion, I hope that this series has been accurate, and that it has shed some light on the real Guantánamo. I come away with the impression that the place has minor flaws, like any other place. While there may have been abuses in the past — as evidenced by the detainees’ talking bad about the Army guys who used to run the place — that is mostly a thing of the past. It sounds as though, nowadays, Guantánamo is far from a source of shame; it is a place where folks like Stashiu work hard at a difficult job, and for the most part do it well.
Thanks to Stashiu
In particular, I want to extend my deepest thanks to Stashiu, a man for whom I have great admiration, and whom I hope to meet personally some day. I thank him for his service and for his extraordinary generosity in spending so much time with me, to make sure that these pieces have been accurate and interesting. In the course of putting these interviews together, I have had several telephone conversations with Stashiu — several hours total — and we have exchanged well over 100 e-mails. I feel that I have gotten to know him fairly well, and I think he is an absolutely stand-up guy. He didn’t have to tell us about Guantánamo, but I’m glad he did.
In my first post, I noted that a certificate accompanying Stashiu’s medal for service at Guantánamo stated that Stashiu “reflected credit upon himself, the United States Army, and the Department of Defense.” I think his interviews with me — with their candor coupled with a careful respect for confidential information — have reflected credit on the Army and the United States of America. I am proud to know this man, and proud of the job that he has done for our country.
P.S. Stashiu remains available to answer your questions in the comments. Because not everyone reads the comments, next week I may try to take the most interesting of the questions and answers and put them in a post. Many of you ask better questions than I ever thought of asking, and all my readers should see the answers.