By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 07, 2008) -- The recently appointed deputy commander of Joint Task Force - Guantanamo said he knows why many have a hard time letting go of misconceptions about detainee treatment at the facility.
Despite those misconception, Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti said, detainees from the war on terror held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being treated fairly.
"I understand why people are reluctant to say (we) are really telling the truth here -- we all remember Abu Ghraib -- it hit us pretty hard," he said. "But we are going to make sure we conduct our operations in a safe and transparent way and it is going to be transparent to the world. So every week we are bringing down some human rights groups. They see every detainee and they talk with them."
Conditions at Guantanamo for detainees are not necessarily pleasant, the general said; after all, they are detainees and suspected terrorists. But the conditions are not inhumane, either and detainees are not being abused.
"The detainees are treated as a detainee should be, so it's not palatial -- they don't have Bowflex machines or hot tubs -- but at the same time, are they mistreated or abused? No. So the only way we can show that is to have people come down and look at the place."
Zanetti said detainees at Guantanamo get as many as 5,000 calories a day of food to eat, so much so that in the past some had to be put on diets because they were "becoming obese." The detainees also read a newsletter, in multiple languages, that covers such things as Middle East politics, soccer scores and economics.
For Soldiers working as guards at Guantanamo, often called "Gitmo" for short, the job can be both physically and mentally demanding. Zanetti said guards in the detention facilities there regularly work 12-hour days, sometimes more than that.
"They do have a tough job. It's a 12-hour shift that starts at 6 in the morning and ends at 6 at night," he said. "But you know, you never start your day at 6. The guys get up at 4:30, quarter to 5. Then they get to the camps, get their briefs, and then they start walking the blocks. These Soldiers and Sailors walk eight to 11 miles a day, putting eyes on the detainees every one to three minutes."
It's not just the grueling schedule that is tough, or the physical training, or the time on their feet, Zanetti said. The job is dangerous because the detainees themselves are dangerous, he said.
"Inside the detention facility we have all the makings of an al Qaeda cell," said Zanetti. "We are holding financiers, spiritual leaders, military leaders, trigger pullers, bomb makers and so on. They have a remarkable way of forming cells, where they have their own operations daily and we have our operations daily."
And those detainees keep guards on their toes, with threats and physical assaults. Zanetti said he hears about it from the guards themselves during morning battle update briefings.
During the morning "BUB," guards report on detainee activity against them, including a detainee who "balled up feces" and threw it at a guard's chest, with a follow-up warning that next time it would be "in the face." Another detainee was reported to have bit a guard on the arm so hard that he had to be sent to the medical facility for evaluation, and yet another, after threatening a female guard with rape, told her he'd kill her and her family when he "got out."
Guards must keep their eyes on detainees for a number of reasons. It's not just for their own security, or even for intelligence gathering. It's also because the detainees pose a risk to themselves, Zanetti said.
"The detainees often want to commit self harm," Zanetti said. "And we don't want them to commit self harm. It's one of the odd parts about Guantanamo Bay. When in a time of war do we strive to keep the enemy alive while the enemy strives to hurt himself? But this is what those guards do, and they do it in a professional way every day."
At it's peak occupancy, the detention facility at Guantanamo held as many as 800 detainees. That was back in 2002. Today, that number has dropped to about 275. Many of those released have been sent back to their home countries. Some of those detainees are awaiting a hearing by a military commission that will try them for the crimes they are accused of.
"Many are probably familiar with the Nuremberg trials, post World War II, when we put the Nazis on trial for war crimes," Zanetti said. "This is the modern-day version, somewhat, of the Nuremberg trials."
JTF-GTMO doesn't actually run the tribunals there, instead, that task falls on the Office of Military Commissions, said Zanetti. "We at JTF-GTMO think of ourselves as the stage hands."
The task force manages the detention facility, sets up the courtroom, and runs communications and logistics support there. They also provide the security.
While the task force doesn't play a direct role in bringing justice to detainees, Zanetti said he is proud of the fact that the United States is playing it fair with them.
"If this were any other country in the world the rights being afforded to these detainees would be unheard of," he said. "I am rather proud of that. We are going to lengths to give fair trials, with the right of appeal all the way to the Supreme Court."