The U.S. detention mission for terror suspects at Guantanamo got off to a rocky start nearly two years ago with few Arabic speakers, computers or savvy interrogators — and now it is plagued by fears of enemies from within.
The center holding about 660 mostly Muslim, non-English-speaking suspected terrorist fighters was expanded last year, drawing specialized personnel and a new general who ordered sweeping changes. But with two former translators and a former chaplain at Guantanamo under arrest, details are emerging of a troubled mission.
"The whole thing was a mess," Bill Tierney, a former interpreter at Guantanamo and a military intelligence veteran, told The Associated Press on Tuesday by telephone from his Florida home.
He said the prisoners were masters at manipulation, bullying Muslim servicemen and staging hunger strikes or suicide attempts to get attention. Sometimes, the detainees would rib the Muslim troops, criticizing them for taking paychecks from the "infidels."
"These guys would know who the Muslims were, who spoke Arabic, and would do everything to push their buttons," Tierney said.
Tierney, who was an interpreter in Guantanamo in February and March of 2002, described an amateur interrogation operation that began after the first detainees arrived in January 2002, shackled and disoriented after being flown halfway around the world to be held in cage-like cells open to the elements.
The detention center has since grown to include trailer-style quarters where detainees have a metal bed, a sink and toilets that flush.
Professor Richard Kohn, former chief Air Force historian at the Pentagon, said the military confused the roles of jailer and interrogator.
"The military was essentially the jailer down there. And that's not the intelligence gathering business. It's not the cultural sensitivity business," said Kohn, who chairs the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tierney said the mission had few computers and fewer interrogators who knew Arabic or how to crosscheck information.
He also described a folly of errors with young troops not knowing basic geography, or trained in classical Arabic rather than the numerous other languages such as Pashto or Dari spoken in Afghanistan.
Tierney, who was working as a contractor with Worldwide Language Resources, was ordered out of the remote Naval base in eastern Cuba. Officials say he was interfering with the interrogation process; he says he simply told an interrogator the location of Karachi, the Pakistani port city.
Interrogators were seldom left alone with detainees, he said.
The U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees Guantanamo, has refused to allow interviews with interrogators or interpreters.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller took over the Guantanamo mission late last year and instituted a system of rewards for detainees that was meant to jolt the interrogation process into high gear.
Some changes, which included moving cooperative detainees to a medium-security wing where they get more exercise, books and other liberties, were seen by some critics as being too easy on the detainees and jeopardizing security.
Although U.S. officials say efforts are ongoing to improve the lives of detainees, who have yet to be charged with any crime, it is unclear how the conditions actually have changed other than the construction of proper cells.
Miller says the system of rewards has been a success, saying three-fourths of the detainees had confessed.
"We have a large number of detainees who have been very cooperative describing their actions, either terrorist actions or in support of terrorism — more than 75 percent," Miller said recently.
The arrest of a second translator on Monday has raised new concerns about espionage and questions about how the military checked the dozens of translators needed to help with interrogations of al Qaeda and Taliban suspects from more than 40 countries.
A new assessment team traveled to the prison this week to study procedures and make recommendations on security, defense officials said Tuesday.
Civilian interpreter Ahmed Mehalba, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Egypt, was arrested Monday with classified documents from Guantanamo. Last week authorities charged Air Force Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi with espionage for allegedly sending classified information about Guantanamo to an unspecified "enemy." Another suspect is Army Capt. Yousef Yee, a Muslim chaplain being detained without charge at the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
By Paisley Dodds