60 Minutes II visited there recently, before the arrests, and even met that Army chaplain. We went to Guantanamo in order to see how the military is holding 660 suspected terrorists, in secret and without trial.
We were the first journalists allowed to take cameras inside the prison, known as Camp Delta.
The Pentagon imposed some rules: We were forbidden to take pictures of, or talk to, the prisoners and could not photograph some parts of the camp.
But we were able to see the conditions under which the prisoners are held, and talk to the Americans who guard them. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.
The prison is on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean, an isolated corner of the remote U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. It’s America’s little corner of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Security is tight - razor wire, guard towers and searchlights control the perimeter while gunboats patrol the waters below.
The prisoners, from 42 different countries, were captured in Afghanistan. They live behind a green mesh fence, their every move watched by Army MPs. And ever since they were flown -- in hoods and shackles -- to Cuba in January 2002, they’ve been kept incommunicado and out of sight.
Sgt. Maj. John Van Natta, an Army reservist, showed 60 Minutes II around. He’s the warden at Camp Delta. In civilian life, he runs a large state penitentiary in Indiana.
We were allowed into an empty high-security cellblock. It was empty, Van Natta says, because the cells were just repainted. There are 48 cells per block, about 1000 cells in all, and plans to build more.
Van Natta says a typical 8x6 cell is similar to prison cells in the U.S. He displayed the standard-issue clothing and toiletries given to each detainee - plus the checkers, cards and even the cups that are earned by good behavior.
At first, Van Natta said, prisoners used cups to throw urine, sewage or other concoctions at the guards. But he says that doesn't happen much anymore: "It's minimal, and the control is, in fact, in place here."
Control is exerted through religion, too. Each cell comes equipped with a Koran, prayer beads, and an arrow pointing towards Mecca - 12,793 kilometers from Guantanamo Bay, a reminder of just how far the prisoners are from home.
Their day begins with the Muslim call to prayer over the camp’s PA system. Capt. James Yee, the Muslim chaplain who was arrested, downloaded the precise times of the five daily prayers from an Islamic Web site. He also counseled the prisoners.
"I do have access to the detainees, to be able to speak and talk with them," says Yee. "I can hold conversations with them."
And those conversations have apparently gotten Capt. Yee in trouble. Just a few days ago, the Pentagon disclosed that Yee and another American serviceman at Camp Delta were arrested on suspicion of espionage and aiding the enemy.
Details have not been made public, but sources tell CBS News the investigation could lead to other arrests.
That's a bizarre development for a secret military prison that prides itself on tight security. But the Army also prides itself on how it treats and even feeds the prisoners.
Camp administrators say the detainees have gained an average of 13 pounds since coming here, because, they boast, the food is good.
And Navy Capt. Al Shimkus, who’s in charge of health care, says prisoners get the same level of treatment as soldiers. But there is concern over the large number of suicide attempts – 32 so far, none successful.
“We take every attempt to commit suicide very seriously,” says Shimkus. “Despair in general can be a factor, and lots of other things.”
Other things, he says, like battlefield stress. In fact, Shimkus estimates that up to 15 percent of the detainees were mentally ill when they arrived.
Doctors are treating about 90 detainees for depression, even prescribing anti-depressants for some. And they’ve set up a special psychiatric ward for serious cases.
Camp Iguana, named after the reptiles that run loose all over the base, is where the three youngest prisoners - between the ages of 13 and 15 - are kept.
How dangerous can they be? “Well, juveniles can kill,” says Shimkus, who refused to tell us if they have killed before.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who runs Camp Delta, says he thinks the three juveniles should be sent home. But only, he emphasizes, because they no longer pose a serious threat to Americans.
So far, 64 adult prisoners have been sent home. But Miller insists neither they, nor any of the 660 who remain, are innocent: “Every detainee who is at Camp Delta has gone through a very thorough, careful screening process. They are all here for the right reasons. Either they were involved in terrorist activity, or they supported terrorism.”
Miller contends that all the prisoners were captured on the battlefield in
Afghanistan. In Guantanamo, they were first held in a makeshift detention center. Outsiders could get a view only through a telephoto lens.
Today, Camp Delta is unlike any other American prison, civilian or military, because prisoners haven’t been charged, tried or convicted of anything.
But they are all presumed guilty of something.
“It’s not humane to incarcerate somebody indefinitely, without a hearing, and to keep them there with no chance of proving his innocence,” says Tom Wilner, a prominent Washington attorney, hired by the families of 12 Kuwaitis being held at Camp Delta.
“How would any of us feel if our husband, our brother, our father, our son, were picked up in another country and was just held there with no opportunity to go before anybody impartial to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got the wrong guy. I didn’t do anything.’”
The Bush Administration says the detainees are not entitled to fundamental American legal rights, like due process, because Camp Delta is on Cuban soil. Federal courts have upheld that position, but the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Administration also argues that even though they were captured in a war, they’re not prisoners of war, at least as defined by the Geneva Conventions, which regulates treatment of POWs.
“These are enemy combatants, as you know, picked up on the battlefield. They were not fighting for a country as is covered by the Geneva Convention,” says Miller. “If I was in the same condition, then I would want to be detained in the same manner that we are detaining these enemy combatants.”
“My reaction to that is one of real anger,” says Wilner. “The attempt by the American government to say that these people are lucky because we’re giving them good medical treatment, a lot of calories, so they’re lucky to be there, and they’re held in a nice way is absolutely wrong.”
The Geneva Conventions say POWs in World War II didn’t have to tell their captors anything but name, rank and serial number.
But from the first day Camp Delta opened, the main goal has been to get prisoners to talk - and to tell everything they know about terrorists and their organizations.
“We interrogate seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Miller. “We don’t talk about the operational measures that we use, but I will tell you, everything we do, our nation can be proud of.”
Although he wouldn’t be more specific, Miller did claim interrogators don’t use physical coercion. And, he said, Pentagon rules limit the length of interrogations to no more than 16 straight hours. And those are the rules for adults. The three juveniles at Camp Iguana, Miller says, are "de-briefed," not interrogated.
Detainees who provide useful information are rewarded with a move to a special camp, where they live communally, but under constant surveillance.
But some have no information to give. In fact, a senior American military interrogator at Camp Delta told 60 Minutes II that as many as 20 percent of the Guantanamo prisoners were sent there by mistake - and that they were innocent bystanders, or very small fish.
This may be one reason why: U.S. forces dropped millions of leaflets during the Afghan war offering $20,000 to Afghans who turned in an alleged terrorist.
“Many of these people were turned over in a bounty hunt, swept up in a bounty hunt, nothing more than that,” says Wilner. “A lot of these people down there are innocent. They were picked up by mistake. There’s no question about that.”
That’s what Pakistani government officials found. They sent a security team to Camp Delta to interview 58 Pakistani nationals being held there – and reported they were all low-level cannon fodder.
Since 60 Minutes II couldn’t to talk to prisoners at Guantanamo, it tracked down some who’ve been released in recent weeks.
Shah Mohammed is back home in a remote province of Pakistan, where CBS News producer Homaira Usman found him. He admits working for the Taliban as a cook. But he insists he wasn’t a soldier, and had no contact with al Qaeda. He says he was captured by pro-American Afghan fighters in the Northern Alliance.
“Then we were sold to the Americans, who interrogated us and took us to Kandahar,” says Mohammed, speaking through a translator. “I thought they would release us because I am innocent, but instead they took us to Cuba.”
There, he says, he was interrogated often. Fearing he would never see his family again, Mohammed says he tried to hang himself several times. Then, after 16 months, officers said he would be released because he was innocent.
But Gen. Miller insists that none of the 64 who’ve been released were innocent. Rather, he says, they had given up all the useful information they had.
However, Wilner says it’s wrong to sacrifice basic fairness because of the threat of terrorism: ”This is a different war, and we’ve got to do everything necessary to protect ourselves. All we’re asking for is a process. We simply can’t say,'Throw everyone in jail because some of them might be bad guys.'”
What does Miller say to people who believe that this is “un-American” because prisoners are not given due process? “We’re still at war, winning the global war on terror,” he says. “We are very careful to give the nation the best opportunity to win this war.”
And the Pentagon says it will keep prisoners in Guantanamo until that war is won. Inside Camp Delta, both prisoners and guards know that could be a long, long time.
When asked if this could be a life sentence for some detainees, Sgt. Maj. John Van Natta answered, "It very likely could be."