WASHINGTON Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay were regularly subjected to harsh and coercive treatment, several people who worked in the prison said in recent interviews, despite longstanding assertions by military officials that such treatment had not occurred except in some isolated cases.
Military guards, intelligence agents and others described a range of procedures that included treatment they said was highly abusive occurring over a long period of time, as well as rewards for prisoners who cooperated with interrogators.
One regular procedure described by people who worked at Camp Delta, the main prison facility at the naval base in Cuba, was making uncooperative prisoners strip to their underpants, having them sit in chairs while shackled hand and foot to a bolt in the floor, and forcing them to endure strobe lights and screamingly loud rock and rap music played through two close loudspeakers. One military official who witnessed the procedure said the air conditioning was turned up to maximum levels to make the detainees uncomfortable, as they were accustomed to high temperatures.
Such sessions could last up to 14 hours with breaks, said the official, who described the treatment after being contacted by The New York Times.
“It fried them,” the official said, explaining that his anger over the treatment the prisoners endured was the reason for speaking with a reporter. Another person familiar with the procedure who was contacted by The Times said: “They were very wobbly. They came back to their cells and were just completely out of it.”
The new information comes from a number of people, some of whom witnessed or participated in the techniques and others who were in a position to know the details of the operation and corroborate their accounts.
Those who spoke of the interrogation practices at the naval base did so under the condition that their identities not be revealed. While some said it was because they remained on active duty, they all said that being publicly identified would endanger their futures.
Although some former prisoners have said they saw and experienced mistreatment at Guantanamo, this is the first time that people who worked there have provided detailed accounts of some interrogation procedures.
One intelligence official said most of the intense interrogation was focused on detainees known as the “Dirty Thirty,” believed to be the best potential sources of information.
In August, a report commissioned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found that tough techniques approved by the government were rarely used, but the sources described a broader pattern that went beyond even the aggressive techniques that were permissible.
The issue of what were permissible interrogation techniques has produced a vigorous debate within the government that burst into the open with reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and is now the subject of several independent investigations.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan, the administration has wrestled with the issue of what techniques were permissible in interrogations, with many arguing that the campaign against terrorism should entitle them to greater leeway.
Pentagon officials would not comment on the details of the allegations. In response to questions about the new accounts, Lieutenant Commander Alvin Plexico issued a Defense Department statement that the military was running a “safe, humane and professional detention operation at Guantanamo that is providing valuable information in the war on terrorism.”
The sources portrayed a system of punishment and reward, with prisoners who were favored for their cooperation with interrogators given the privilege of spending time in a large room nicknamed “the love shack” by the guards. In that room, they were free to relax and had access to magazines, books, television, a video player and some movies, along with the use of a water pipe to smoke aromatic tobaccos. Those prisoners were also occasionally given milkshakes and hamburgers.
The Pentagon said the information gathered from the detainees “has undoubtedly saved the lives of our soldiers in the field. And that information also saves the lives of innocent civilians at home and abroad. At Guantanamo we are holding and interrogating people that are a clear danger to the U.S. and our allies and they are providing valuable information in the war on terrorism.”
Although many critics of the detentions at Guantanamo have said that the majority of the roughly 590 inmates are low-level fighters who have little intelligence to impart, Pentagon and intelligence officials have insisted that the facility houses many dangerous veteran terrorists and officials of Al Qaeda.
Much of the harsh treatment described by the sources was said to have occurred as recently as the early months of this year. After the scandal about mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public in April, all harsh techniques were abruptly suspended, they said.
The new accounts of mistreatment at Guantanamo provide fresh evidence about how practices there may have contributed to the abuses later uncovered at Abu Ghraib. One independent military panel said in a report that the approach that was being used at Guantanamo “migrated to Abu Ghraib,” where abuses grew exponentially.
The vigorous debate within the administration about what techniques were permissible in interrogations was set off when the Justice Department provided a series of memorandums to the White House and Defense Department providing narrow definitions of torture. In February 2002, Bush ordered that the prisoners at Guantanamo were to be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate with military necessity, in a manner consistent with” the Geneva Conventions.
In December 2002, Rumsfeld approved a list of 16 techniques for use at Guantanamo in addition to the 17 methods in the Army Field Manual. But he suspended those approvals in January 2003 after some military lawyers complained they were excessive and possibly unlawful. In April 2003, Rumsfeld issued a final policy approving 24 techniques, some of which needed his permission.