Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Second Report

2  Summary of the visit


8. Reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee are based on evidence heard in Westminster, on written evidence and on public source material. In addition, they are almost invariably informed by discussions held during a visit or visits to a relevant country or region. The off-the-record exchanges we are able to have on these visits are not referred to directly in our Reports, but they are of great assistance to us in analysing the evidence and in forming our conclusions.

9. We discussed Guantánamo with senior officials in the State Department when we visited Washington DC in March 2006. In the course of that discussion, we raised the possibility of a visit to Guantánamo, so that we might see conditions there for ourselves. We later pursued this request with a senior State Department official when he was in London, and then in correspondence with senior figures in the Department of Defense. Our request was granted and a maximum of seven of us were permitted to visit Guantánamo in September 2006. Those seven were the first members of a national parliament other than the United States Congress to visit the base. We are grateful to the State Department and Department of Defense for facilitating the visit, and to the British Embassy in Washington DC both for setting up the visit and for accompanying us on it.


10. The seven members who visited Guantánamo were Mike Gapes (Chairman, Lab), Fabian Hamilton (Lab), Paul Keetch (Lib Dem), Eric Illsley (Lab), John Maples (Con), Greg Pope (Lab) and Sir John Stanley (Con). They were accompanied by the Clerk of the Committee. The visit to Guantánamo took place on 20 September and was both preceded and followed by meetings in Washington DC.

11. In Washington, the group met senior State Department officials, senior Department of Defense officials, Senators Richard Lugar and Lindsey Graham, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the British Ambassador. A full itinerary is appended to this Report.[6]

12. The group spent a full day at Guantánamo. It was accompanied on the flight from Andrews Air Force base by Rear Admiral Harry B Harris Jr, Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) Guantánamo. Members received a full briefing from JTF officials and then toured the facility. In outline, the itinerary was as follows:

  • briefing at JTF Headquarters
  • lunch with JTF personnel; view display of detainee rations
  • Camp Delta:
    • Camp I (medium security);
    • Camp IV (low security);
    • Camp V (high security), including interrogation wing;
    • Camp VI (high security) (not then open) ;
    • medical facilities
  • view of former Camp X-Ray (closed)

13. Apart from US Joint Task Force personnel, the only people who are permitted to meet detainees are their lawyers and the Red Cross. Having consulted the International Committee of the Red Cross before the visit, we accepted their advice that it would be contrary to the provisions of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions for us to meet detainees. We recognise that we did not, therefore, hear at first hand the complaints of the detainees about the conditions in which they are held. However, a number of former detainees have written in detail about their experiences, and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International have collated and presented such information, also in detail. It is also the case that the only alternative to visiting Guantánamo without access to detainees would have been not to visit Guantánamo, and thus not to have been able to make this Report to the House.

Description of Guantánamo Bay detention centre

History of Guantánamo Bay naval base

14. The US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay is the oldest outside the continental United States, and the only one in a country with which the United States does not have full relations.[7] In 1903, the United States leased 45 square miles of land and water at Guantánamo Bay for use as a coaling station for its fleet. A 1934 treaty reaffirming the lease granted Cuba and her trading partners free access through the bay, modified the lease payment from $2,000 in gold coins per year to the 1934 equivalent value of $4,085, and added a requirement that termination of the lease requires the consent of both the US and Cuban governments, or the abandonment of the base by the US. We were informed that the annual payment is still made to the Cuban government, although the account into which it is paid has remained untouched for many years.

15. US relations with Cuba remained stable through the two world wars and the periods between and did not significantly change until the revolution of the late 1950s. Cuban territory outside the base was declared off limits to US servicemen and civilians on 1 January 1959. When the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba two years later, several thousand Cubans sought refuge on the base. In September 2006, 56 Cubans still lived and worked on the base permanently, and we were told that three elderly Cuban men who had worked there since before the revolution still crossed from Cuban territory into the base each day. Current US policy is to return any Cuban who enters the base illegally.

16. The base is located on both sides of an estuary, with no land or bridge link between the two parts. The airstrip is on the West side; most of the other facilities are to the East. Transit between the two is by ferry. Cuban vessels also use the estuarial waters, although they do so only in small numbers—roughly six to eight vessels monthly. On land, a fence delineates the base boundary. There is a crossing-point to the North-East.

17. In February 1964, Cuban authorities cut off water and access to the base in retaliation for several incidents in which Cuban fishermen were fined by the US government for fishing in Florida waters. Since then, the base has been totally self-sufficient, with its own power and water sources. We were told that there are regular, monthly meetings between US Naval and Cuban military authorities to resolve any issues that arise regarding the base; these are the only acknowledged official contacts between the two governments.

18. In 1991, the naval base's mission was expanded when 34,000 Haitian refugees transited through Guantánamo Bay. Some were granted asylum in the US; others were returned to Haiti. A special detention facility—Camp Bulkeley—was constructed to house several hundred Haitians who were HIV-positive. Some remained there for up to eighteen months, until a US court declared their detention to be unconstitutional and the camp was closed in June 1993. In late August and early September 1994, the refugee population climbed to more than 45,000 and the Pentagon began preparing to house up to 60,000 migrants on the base. This was the period when Camp X-Ray was originally constructed, as one of several temporary holding facilities for Cuban and Haitian migrants.

19. The last Haitian migrants departed the base in late 1995, and the last Cuban migrants left in early 1996. After then, the base was used to hold illegal Chinese migrants being smuggled into the United States, who had been intercepted at sea. However, the naval role of the base declined when the US Navy Fleet Training Group relocated to Mayport, Florida, in July 1995 and the shore maintenance facilities were closed down. Now, the main roles of the naval base are support of counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean, and provision of hurricane warnings.

20. The base took on a new role in 2002, when Camp X-Ray—by then the only remaining detention facility on the base—was reopened to receive 'enemy combatants' detained in Afghanistan. Since then, the Joint Task Force Guantánamo has become the most important operation at the base. There are approximately 1,000 military and 300 civilian JTF personnel at the base, comprising just part of up to 9,500 US personnel at Guantánamo, many with their families. The resident population includes 2,300 foreign workers, as well as the detainees. We were told at the time of our visit that the number of detainees was approximately 455, of whom the US was prepared either to release or to transfer about 130. In December 2006, following several transfers of detainees to their countries of origin, the latest official figures given by the Department of Defense were 395 detainees remaining in custody, of whom 85 were eligible for release or transfer.[8]

21. As noted above, the group who visited the base had a full tour of the different camps and other facilities. We summarise below what the group saw.


22. Having had a full day of very detailed discussions in Washington DC, the group arrived at Guantánamo Bay at about 09.30 on 20 September and departed at about 16.30. Members were briefed on the role of the US Naval Base en route from the airstrip to the Joint Task Force Headquarters. At the Headquarters, Admiral Harris and other JTF personnel gave the group a presentation and answered questions. The issues we discussed are considered in detail later in this Report. Those of us who went on the visit were impressed by the openness of Admiral Harris and his team, and by their willingness both to answer our questions and to engage in frank discussion of the issues.

23. Before lunch, we viewed what we were told was a typical day's rations for a detainee. Several times during the visit, we were informed that all detainees are offered 4,200 calories of Halal food daily and that most have put on weight since arriving at Guantánamo. We were told that some are clinically obese.[9] All the camps have exercise facilities, although these vary greatly in size, according to the category of prisoner. Individual cells are too small to provide detainees with much scope for vigorous exercise.

24. The group then visited Camp Delta. Although all detainees in Camps I to III in Camp Delta are classified to varying degrees as 'non-compliant', some have been granted certain privileges. Fully non-compliant detainees are issued with orange clothing and a minimum of other items; these include sandals, basic bedding, a prayer cap, a prayer mat and a copy of the Quran. The group also saw 'suicide smocks', which are made of material which breaks when pressure is applied and are used, we were told, to prevent detainees from harming themselves. Detainees may by compliant behaviour earn privileges; these include being issued with beige clothing, more bedding, a traditional Islamic prayer rug, ear plugs and personal sanitary items. The detainees are under constant surveillance and electric lighting is on permanently.

25. The Camp is split into six sub-camps, numbered I to VI. Camps I to III date from 2002 and hold high-security prisoners. We went into Camp I, which was closed at the time of the visit for repairs. We were told that detainees had discovered they could remove part of the plumbing system in each cell to fashion weapons and that these had been used to attack guards; the plumbing was therefore being replaced.

26. Camps I to III are of predominantly wire cage construction, but with concrete floors, hard roofs and protection from the elements. Each block houses up to 48 detainees, in two rows of 24 cells. At the end of each block are showering and basic exercise facilities. The cells are small, about 2 metres by 1.5 metres. They are equipped with a fixed bunk and basic sanitation. An arrow set into each bunk points to Mecca.

27. At the end of the block visited by the group was a recreation area, with four shower cubicles and a number of exercise yards, some containing basic gym machinery. Each yard is enclosed by wire. In several places, camouflage netting has been arranged to provide a little shade. Two further wire fences, to one of which heavy-duty fabric has been attached to block any view, mark the perimeter of the camp. Watch towers stand in the strip between the two fences.

28. The group next visited Camp IV, which is classed as medium-security and houses 'compliant' detainees. The camp is a series of single-storey blocks arranged around an exercise area. Detainees are accommodated in dormitories with up to ten conventional beds and mattresses; lights are dimmed at night. They eat and pray communally and are permitted to wear white clothing. Among the additional items they are issued with are board games; they also have access to more extensive physical recreation areas, including soccer, volleyball and basketball pitches, as well as table tennis and gym equipment; television is sometimes available. There are several outdoor association areas in this camp; these have shade, benches and tables. At the time of our visit, detainees appeared to have free access to these areas and the dormitories appeared to be unlocked. However, fewer than one in ten detainees were accommodated in Camp IV at the time of our visit.

29. Camp V is a maximum-security block of more conventional construction, being based on the 'Indiana model' prison. It was opened in 2004. About 100 prisoners are housed in four, two-storey wings. Cells are slightly larger than those in Camps I to III and the sanitation is less basic. All walls, floors and doors are of solid construction, which greatly reduces the scope for detainees to converse without being overheard. Guards look into each cell every few minutes, and also monitor them using cameras. Prisoners may summon a guard by using a microphone built into each cell, which communicates directly with the control room. Some cells are equipped for disabled detainees; a large number of those held at Guantánamo have disabilities, mostly as a result of losing a limb in an explosion or in combat.

30. This camp also houses the interrogation facilities. The group witnessed by closed-circuit television an interrogation being conducted. The detainee, wearing a beige uniform which indicated he was compliant to a degree, was seated on an upholstered chair. His hands were free, but one ankle was secured to a metal ring set into the floor and he was wearing a heavy belt, which is used to restrain detainees when they are moved between their cells and other rooms. A soft drink was next to him. We were told that the detainee was free to ask for food and drink to be sent in and that he was also free to end the interview at any time.

31. The group visited an interrogation room. The furniture was plusher than the type depicted in photographs available on the internet.[10] The room was also equipped with a table, two ceiling-mounted video cameras, a television set and a DVD player. There is a panic button to summon help if the interviewer feels threatened.

32. Outside Camp V, there are individual recreation pens, each measuring ten by eighteen feet. Prisoners held in Camp V are not allowed to associate and at the time of our visit they were conducting shouted conversations from their cells.

33. Camp VI, which we were told cost $37 million to build, opened at the end of 2006. Like Camp V, it is based on a US penitentiary, in this case the 'Michigan model'; however, unlike Camp V, it was designed as a medium-security facility. It has since been reconfigured for use as a maximum-security block and it was clear when we visited that this has required substantial additional work. The camp has eight two-storey wings or 'pods' accommodating about 22 prisoners each, opening onto full-height association areas. A high-tech central monitoring and control room makes use of the many remote-control cameras to supervise the pods using minimum numbers of guards. The intention is to close Camps I to III once Camp VI is fully open, and after more of those eligible for release or transfer have left.

34. Many contemporary articles about Guantánamo continue to refer mistakenly to the entire existing facility as 'Camp X-Ray'. Photographs and film of detainees at Camp X-Ray are also regularly used in media coverage of stories about Guantánamo Bay. However, as we saw for ourselves, Camp X-Ray is no longer used for housing detainees and has not been so used since 2002. Detainees are now housed in much more modern facilities.

35. The group visited the detention hospital at Camp Delta. Most of the 100 medical staff are drawn from US Naval units and their average tour of duty is six months. Their mission was described to us as "to provide the best possible care for our detainees." Initially, medical staff dealt with many battlefield injuries as the detainees arrived from Afghanistan. Now, chronic conditions prevail over the acute. Typical complaints presented by detainees are gastro-enteric, muscular-skeletal or ear, nose and throat. Much dental work is carried out. There is also a clinic, in a separate building, which receives about 300 visits monthly.

36. The hospital has two wards, each with nine beds, and two single-bed rooms for infectious cases. About 100 x-ray examinations are made each month, mostly for routine reasons such as screening for tuberculosis. The operating theatre has carried out 150 procedures.

37. Next, the group visited the Behavioural Health Unit (BHU). This provides in- and out-patient services for psychiatric patients. The percentage of detainees in Guantánamo exhibiting psychiatric problems is comparable to that in the US prison population as a whole. About one fifth of the detainees have had a diagnosis of one or more of a variety of psychiatric conditions, but not all require treatment. Four percent of detainees receive medication for a psychiatric condition.

38. The Unit also assesses hunger strikers to discover their motivation. However, there are 'firewalls' between the Unit and the rest of the Joint Task Force. For example, patient confidentiality can be broken only in the case of overriding need, to prevent loss of life. A separate team of psychiatrists—the behavioural science consultation team, referred to by the acronym 'biscit'—monitors interrogations at Camp V. We were told that it would not be appropriate for the BHU staff to confuse their patient care role by becoming involved in the interrogation process.

39. In our view, the full day spent at Guantánamo by seven of us was an invaluable opportunity to witness at first hand the conditions which prevail there, and to ask questions of some of those directly involved in the detention, interrogation or care of the prisoners. The JTF personnel whom we met were very open and gave full answers to our many questions. We do not suppose that we were able to see everything, but we are satisfied with the access that we were given, which we were told was equal to that given to members of the United States Congress.

6   Appendix 1 Back

7   See Back

8   "Detainee Transfer Announced", Department of Defense news release 1287-06, 17 December 2006 Back

9   See "A Growing Threat at Guantanamo? Detainees Fatten Up", ABC News, 3 October 2006 Back

10   See, eg, Back

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Prepared 21 January 2007