Longform

Guantánamo’s Final Days: America Prepares to Shutter the Infamous Prison Camp, and Jihad Looms

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A Navy lawyer finishes questioning an FBI agent just after 11 a.m., and the camera shifts to Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, who is presiding in a judge's flowing black robes. "Because of the inauguration, then, we're going to recess for the rest of the day. We're going to reconvene tomorrow at 0900," he says. Parrish pauses and clears his throat. "Unless we're told otherwise by the commission."

In that instant, the TV set broadcasting Khadr's hearing flips to live coverage of President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Khadr's slumped figure is replaced by the black-robed figures of the U.S. Supreme Court, tromping down the icy stairs of the U.S. Capitol.

With George Bush sitting nearby, Obama repudiates what Guantánamo Bay has come to represent. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals," he says, setting in motion plans to close the camp within a year and throwing Khadr's case into limbo.

The next day, the brass at Guantánamo try to wrap their minds around what has happened. Army Colonel Bruce Vargo — the detention camp's top commander — keeps an office inside a fluorescent-lighted trailer in the heart of Camp Delta, where the best-behaved prisoners are held. An Ohio native with meaty, pinched features and a booming voice, he seems the perfect officer — in control and unflappable. "Look, we are responsible for the safe, humane, and transparent legal care and custody of these detainees," he says matter-of-factly. "That has not changed, all right?"

Vargo won't talk about conditions prior to his 2007 arrival, but it is obvious much has changed since the early days at Camp X-Ray. Today, detainees live in sterile, modern prison cells that look like maximum-security units in places such as Leavenworth, Kansas, and Florence, Colorado. Inside Camp 6 — the highest-security location other than Camp 7, which is in a secret on-base location that is off-limits to journalists — guards proudly display spartan cells with shatter-proof mirrors and collapsible "suicide-proof" clothing hooks.

Most guards are active-duty soldiers and sailors on two-year assignments. Some of them guide journalists and censor pictures if a snapshot is taken of an empty guard tower or the fence line. Every photo is reviewed and deleted if deemed improper.

Senior Chief Jodi Myers, a perky, well-spoken 41-year-old from Pennsylvania, says prisoners quickly learned of Obama's order to close the camp from their lawyers and word-of-mouth. "They know what's going on; they know the dates and stuff like that," she says, surrounded by empty cells in the common area of an unused block. "The guards maintain a very professional attitude, so we never give [detainees] any information. But they get to read the newspaper."

Jeff MacRay, a heavyset 32-year-old guard from Michigan, says the prisoners are tough to deal with, but uncertainty over the camp's future and the widespread hatred of Guantánamo back home are worse. "It's a difficult occupation," he says softly. "Sometimes, things get misconstrued, and it's frustrating."

Cultural advisers now teach guards about Ramadan, fasting, and the importance of daily prayers to Mecca. For inmates, there are art classes, a couple of hours of daily rec time, specially prepared halal meals, and a library with more than 14,000 books in 22 languages. "We take great pains to respect the religion of these men. Five times a day they get prayer calls, we have respect for their Korans, we have respect for their communal rules," Vargo says. "We've . .  . been continuously working to mature our camps."

The way Vargo sees it, what has been lost in all the hand-wringing over the treatment of the detainees is why these men are here. He insists no one has been tortured on his watch and disputes the idea that holding them without charges is against international standards — because they're "prisoners of war."

"These guys are bomb-makers, forgers, leaders. You know the list of who is in here, you know the type of acts they've done, so you know what that says about them," Vargo says. "What they will be like in the future, I suppose is up to them. I'd say bomb-makers are pretty dangerous people."

Later that day, in a double-wide trailer across camp, a translator named Zak offers a different perspective. A Jordanian in his 50s, he has a prominent nose, light skin, and salt-and-pepper hair. Before moving to Guantánamo in September 2005, he lived in Baghdad, where he risked his life to work as a translator for the U.S. officials who decided which Iraqis to imprison and release.

For the past three years, he has been a "cultural adviser," which means he deals with prisoners as well as Guantánamo's commanders. He says the detainees want to know the crimes they're charged with. Are they defendants or war criminals? "You know, it's not important to the detainees whether this place stays open or not," he says. "They're not saying, 'I'm innocent' or 'I'm guilty.' They're saying, 'Define me. Define me. What are they going to do — keep me in jail another 10 years? Another five years? Go on, go on,'" he says, his voice rising, "'go on and do something!'"

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Tim Elfrink is an investigative reporter and the managing editor of Miami New Times. He's won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink
Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde