A Look Inside Gitmo – From Someone Who Lived There

by Diane Dimond on February 7, 2009

One of the remaining 250 Gitmo Prisoners

One of the remaining 250 Gitmo Prisoners

President Barack Obama has fast tracked closing the multi-million dollar American constructed and controlled detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ok, so now where do all the bad guys go after Gitmo shuts its doors?

It’s a question that’s long plagued Brigadier General Greg Zanetti who from January 2008 to January 2009 was the deputy commander of Gitmo.

“These are bad men,” General Zanetti told me after his recent return to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico.  “There is an edge to these guys Americans just don’t understand.” In a slow, emphatic voice he said, “They want us dead.”

And without quite saying it I got the feeling General Zanetti meant the new President is among those who don’t “get it.”

Brigadier General Gregory Zanetti

Brigadier General Gregory Zanetti

General Zanetti, a West Point graduate with a military resume a mile long, knows all about the Gitmo gang.  He’s walked among them, read their background files and knows them by name.  As we sat in a hotel lounge, he nursing a Cuban rum and Coke, Zanetti gave me a quick history lesson full of perspective.

Right after the September 11th attacks “we were an angry nation,” he says. We went to the battlefield and scooped up hundreds of enemy combatants.  Some were thought to be so valuable they were taken to secret places in secret countries and, reportedly, life saving intelligence was extracted. Does the General think we used torture to get it?  He won’t go there.  But he says nearly every man picked up by U.S. forces praised the 9-11 terrorists and would gleefully have killed more Americans to earn their spot on the martyr list.

“There have been a total of about 770 enemy combatants arrive at Gitmo,” Zanetti told me. Over the years some were determined to be low level threats and released, others were sent back to their home countries for further imprisonment or into the welcoming arms of their old terror buddies who declared them to be “The Heroes of Guantanamo!”  Recent reports conclude more than 60 ex-Gitmo residents have returned to their terrorist ways.

Today Gitmo holds just 250 enemy combatants. They are the 250 no American prison wants and no foreign country will claim.

They are the worst of the worst according to the General who watched as they bit, kicked, elbowed, or threw their feces and vomit on his New Mexico national guardsmen who went to Cuba with Zanetti for the one year tour of duty.

“Most Americans don’t understand that the mistreatment at Gitmo is prisoner on guard,” not the other way around.

The detainees enjoy what Zanetti called “A Hogan’s Heroes type camp … like an old age home for terrorists,” he said.

They aren’t locked away in cells 24/7. They have communal rooms where they mingle and enjoy their native periodicals. There are ocean views, flat screen televisions and some prisoners are allowed to grow their own food. Their Korans and Muslim prayer rugs are brought out five times a day and a cultural adviser is on hand to guide the menu for the several feast days they mark each month, complete with traditional dishes of lamb and cucumber sauces.

While they mingle they continue to scheme against the U.S. according to the General. They’ve learned, sometimes from their own American appointed lawyers, that the most effective way to continue the revolution is to turn our system against us.

They engage in a strategic legal and media war designed to paint themselves as victims. We saw it during the disruptive trial of Zacarias Moussaoui and we will surely see it again if there are more civilian trials here.  And what would happen if a trial technicality actually set a terrorist free?

But the undeniable and unpleasant fact is that the United States has held these men for years, without charges, without trials and that is, most certainly, not the American way.

“I am bothered by the prolonged detentions,” the General said.  But, he explained, Gitmo has hosted scores of foreign delegations – from the International Red Cross, Russia, Middle Eastern and several European countries.  Only Saudi Arabia took their prisoners back and repatriated them, giving them homes and cars if they behaved themselves. In fact, the General told me, when the delegation from Yemen arrived several of the majority Yemeni prisoners pointed at the representatives and declared, “That’s the person who recruited me to fight!” None was taken home.

President Obama seems certain some countries will step forward but I don’t see a line forming at Gitmo’s door.

There is still the possibility of holding military trials but what happens if the defendant is found guilty? He’ll have to be jailed somewhere and the community N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) protests are in full swing at the most often mentioned U.S. locations: Leavenworth, Colorado’s Super-max penitentiary and the Naval Brig in South Carolina.

Gee, maybe Gitmo isn’t so bad after all.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

jeff liddell February 7, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Many years ago, I watched my father yell and scream at my older brother (17 at the time) when he caught him smoking. While my father was ranting and waving his hands around the lit camel cigarette between his fingers was pushing smoke all around my brothers face and at that moment I learned the meaning of "do as I say, not as I do". I think I also learned that hypocrisy is no way to influence your children, friends or anyone else. Americans cannot be held without trial for indefinite periods and even war criminals at the end of WW2 were given their day in court. If the Guantanamo Bay detention center is being utilized to hold individuals indefinitely and without trial, then perhaps it should be closed. Since we are in a war on terrorism, then these detainees at Gitmo should be considered war criminals and they should be given their day in court. Has not prisoner exchange been a part of every war, that may be an answer, If it is to serve that purpose then keep it open and make it the prison for all war criminals apprehended and also the location of the court to try them. We can't treat our own citizens in one manner then treat others indifferently and expect American values to be embraced in other parts of the world.

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DianeDimond February 7, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Jeff,

As General Zanetti told me: The Geneva Convention states that any country can hold (without trial) enemy combatants until a cessation of hostilities. As we all know the WAR ON TERROR continues. I heard President Obama confirm that just the other day.

But to your point that prisoner swaps have always been a part of post-war periods … you are right. But, I must remind you….Except for Saudi Arabia and one prisoner who was taken back to Russia – the countries these prisoners came from do not want them! Many of the prisoners do not want to go back to their countries either.

Zanetti told me a great story about 17 prisoners who are Muslims from China who are still held at Gitmo. When they were picked up on the battlefield they were asked the usual question, "Do you hate America?" And they reportedly said, "No! We love America! We hate Communist China!" So our forces scooped them up, knowing they shouldn't just leave these confused warriors on the battlefield and they, ultimately, were taken to Gitmo for lack of another place. China doesn't want these dissidents (called the UIGHUR clan) and they don't want to go back to China … so there they sit at Gitmo. According to General Zanetti they are a wonderful, peaceful group of people who make their own yogurt and grow their own food there in Cuba. Try as they might America can find no other country who will take the UIGHUR group. No one wants to jeopardize relations with China!

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jeff liddell February 8, 2009 at 2:42 am

I know you are right about holding prisoners until hostilities are over, but the war on terror is not with a specific country so the rules should be modified to account for that situation, and since the war on terror may never end, no person should be held their entire life if that is the case, I can't believe you would support that. If my memory serves me correctly, prisoners accused of and facing criminal charges can be tried and sentences carried out prior to the end of hostilities, other prisoners can be held until hostilities are over. If jeopardizing relations with China is based on the relocation of 17 peaceful Chinese Muslims, then we have much greater problems to worry about concerning those relations with China. If they don't want them back, wherever they can find a home should be acceptable. That may be naive politically but not in the realm of human rights. From what information I have read, most of the detainees at Gitmo should be tried for their various crimes and then sent to prisons to serve their sentences. I know you are capable of some much higher inside info than I am, so if I am incorrect with any of mine, please let me know. Another great column Diane.

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 2:38 pm

No! I don't support holding a person their entire life without due process!

Honestly, it really does make me uncomfortable that these United States (born of the idea of human rights for all) would just dump 250 people and leave them there as if they are "discardable". (is that a word?)

Yet, when I talk to the General I see the dilemma. If you try them at military court you get slammed for conducting a secret tribunal. If you try them in civilian courts you run the risk that they'll get off on some strange technicality (not to mention the mockery they can make of our judicial system as defendants) You can't get other countries to take back their own bad boys … and even the "good boys", the 17 Chinese Muslim dissidents, no one wants !

What's a President to do, huh?

Still it haunts me that we've just left them there all these years without charges, without a trial. And I think the possibility of the Geneva Convention rules suddenly changing are slim to none.

It'll be interesting to see what the Obama Administration comes up with.

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 2:09 am

Albuquerque Journal Reader Ted L. writes:

"I feel there is one very obvious place. Where is the greatest need for jobs?
Where is real estate very cheap now? Since there is a need for about 800
guards and staff to watch and be abused by the prisoners, that would take a
small bite out of the unemployed in Michigan, somewhere near Detroit. Think
about it, a couple thousand construction jobs for a few months building or
re-building a prison, and most of a thousand permanent jobs taking care of
them. This would likewise free a like number of overcommitted military
personnel. Like partially solving two problems with one solution. True?
An appreciative reader"

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jeff liddell February 8, 2009 at 10:22 pm

The jobs idea is a good one. Since prisoners of war cannot be sent to a "prison" according to the Geneva rules, we build one facility for the holding of these war detainees and an adjacent facility for conducting any war crimes trials. I have always thought the most remote and roughest location in Alaska would be a great place for a maximum security prison to hold all of the countries most despicable prisoners, the Siberia of the US.

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Wonder if Governor Sarah Palin would get behind that idea?

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Albuquerque Journal Reader Earl C. writes:

"Just finished this Saturday's Gitmo piece. Great. Maybe if someone spoke nice to Gov. Palin, she might be able to find a couple of empty ice flows for the boys. then with "Global Warming" our troubles would just melt away!"

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Janet Turner February 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I may not be following something here but WHY doesn't China want their people back? In reading the above response…they are said to be peaceful. Why is it even a question? Just send them back and let China sort it out. The U.S. has been put in a very bad situation.
We have heard that some of the prisoners might be sent Indiana's way……we have a bunch of rednecks who RESPECT what the veterans and flag stands for and would probably be glad to show them some "GOOD" hospitality. I am really not making light of this but I believe that if our country is gracious enough to "house" and give them the amenities to live their lives as they would in their own country….i.e..worship, food, medical.( because THEIR country did not want you back) and THEY, in return, treat us worse than the ground they walk on….then they deserve to be "introduced" to the likes of us

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Janet – China doesn't want them back because they are dissidents. Further, they are religious dissidents in a country where the government doesn't tolerate any kind of challenge to its authority.

China doesn't give a damn about a dozen or so of its people and it doesn't care if its causing the United States embarrassment.

Am I reading this right? Would you in Indiana like to have some of the Gitmo prisoners transferred there? Cause the Obama Administration is certain to call if that's the case! :-)

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Janet Turner February 9, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Thanks for straightening it up for me because I was a little lost. Do you think we could send some of them over there….lets say…17 for 17?
That is the rumor…if you will…that is circulationg the news. We have housed some mean ones and held some incredibly insane ones…Timothy McVeigh..being one.and on the other end…Mike Tyson!!!! (Gotta kinda even it out)
We have a great hoosier hospitality and actually…..one of the guys that went to school with me was one who lost his life in the towers…..so I am sure that if it did happen and some were sent this way….they would be taken care of.

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 10:17 pm

DD Web Site Reader Richard D from New York writes:

" I'm afraid I do not agree with you at all on this one.

If the treatment for the detainees is too good, that's another in a fairly long list of reasons of why Gitmo should be closed! Too bad the officer you interviewed refused to answer the torture allegations. They are fairly well documented. (read Jane Mayer's thoughtful and well researched book "The Dark Side" here's the link to her bio at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Mayer)

In addition to Al Qaeda, Hitler's gang of sadists and killers were were also the baddest of the bad, and yet after World War Two, the US led an international push for the Geneva Conventions. They are a proud American accomplishment during a time when our government respected, revered and upheld the rule of law.

Some of the detainees at Guantanamo have been held for 7 years withough charges. Many may well be evil gangsters and punks, who wish nothing but harm to the US. Surely, they wouln't be the first. But I prefer to live with a system that insists these guys are brought to justice. And then placed in solitary confinement, if necessary. "

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Tim February 9, 2009 at 1:33 am

I'd like to ask NIMBY what they think of the thousands of murderers and rapists that already live in Max security prisons in their back yards….

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DianeDimond February 8, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Richard – I don’t think we disagree on much. As I’ve written here I too am anguished about our country holding ANYONE without charges or trial for as long as we’ve held the Gitmo prisoners. It is beyond embarrassing and certainly NOT the American way.

But I would caution you not to think that the most often seen photos of Gitmo prisoners, being walked around the compound with black hoods on their heads, is reflective of the way it is there today. Those photos were taken in 2002 as a new group arrived at the detention center and there were hundreds more detainees on premises. That is not what’s happening there today. And, remember, the torture you remind us of is said to have taken place in Abu Ghraib and other secret locations – again, years ago. If there is torture going on now at Gitmo it is news to me.

I did a massive search for photos of current Gitmo prisoners and while there are a few, portraying healthy, clean looking prisoners they are copyrighted photos and I’m not allowed to duplicate them on my site.

Given the fact that their home countries don’t want them, residents near American max-security prisons are demonstrating the NIMBY attitude, the civilian trials we’ve tried to hold have become near-circus-like and any military trial would likely be labeled as “a secret tribunal” … what do YOU think should happen to the 250 prisoners at Gitmo, Richard? I’d seriously like to hear some good suggestions. ~ DD

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DianeDimond February 9, 2009 at 11:52 am

Albuquerque Journal Reader Dan S. writes:

"I found it disappointing that you would fan the flames of fear and disinformation with your article “ If Not Gitmo, Where?” Let’s look at the numbers you use. 770 enemy combatants have gone through Gitmo, but that number is now 250. What was the criteria that allowed for the release of 520 of these detainees? You also report that 60 of those released have returned to their terrorist ways. Why would the US release know terrorists and if they have committed more acts of terrorism, why haven’t they been arrested once again? I will answer that for you. That number 60 is incorrect and has been debunked.
OK, 250 remain and are the worst of the worst according to you and General Zanetti. How do we know this to be true? Surely not because of verdicts handed down by a trial and jury system.
General Zanetti has also distorted the facts, sadly. There are many eye witness reports by interrogators and prosecutors themselves testifying to gross prisoner abuse. You both make out Gitmo to be a country club prison atmosphere which also is a fabrication.
But what really bugs me is the fear mongering you both put forth.
You act as if the US prison system and our legal system are totally inept. “There is an edge to these guys Americans just don’t understand.” You mean how we didn’t understand Tim McVeigh? That guy was responsible for killing more Americans first hand than any Gitmo detainee. Yet our system apprehended, jailed, tried, convicted and executed the man. We did the same with the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
Not in our back yard? Why in Cuba’s backyard? The US should be responsible for all detainees and combatants and imprison them accordingly. Some amazingly heinous criminals are housed in the US penal system. We are totally capable of housing more.
You also seen afraid to allow our legal system to handle these combatants. Our legal system is the backbone of this nation, yet you seem to lack confidence in it.
Sorry Diane, but your article could have been taken from a transcript of a talk radio program. It was pretty lame for the Op-Ed page."

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DianeDimond February 9, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Reader Jeff U writes:

"Nice first person account, try some balance next time, for example this article:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politi

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DianeDimond February 9, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Jeff:
I'm an op-ed columnist and as such I strive for a point of view – not balance…that is not what an op-ed column is.
When I put on my straight reporters hat the rules change.
And BTW, I went to the link you provided … it really has nothing to do with the bottom line question of my piece: If we close Gitmo where do all the prisoners go? ~DD

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DianeDimond February 10, 2009 at 12:19 am

Reader Jayne S writes:

"Not sure how financially well the Alcatraz Island tours are doing, but although we certainly don't condone torture, this most dangerous of inmate groups should be isolated in maximum security – whadda ya think about readying and re-opening Alcatraz as the go-to prison for the Gitmo group?"

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DianeDimond February 10, 2009 at 12:20 am

Gee, Jayne,
That might be a great idea … but I have no idea what kind of shape that old building might be in! I'll try to check out how "close to occupancy" Alcatraz would be. ~ DD

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DianeDimond February 10, 2009 at 3:48 am

Huffington Post reader Harry S. writes:

" It's about time we have some litigation here. We cant just hold these people indefinitely. We need to release the innocent, and jail the guilty. I like Texas as the site for a new detention facility. There's a lot of unused, space there."

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DianeDimond February 11, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Albuquerque Journal Reader Don H of Gallup, New Mexico writes:

"You should be more skeptical of one source, in this case, Brig. Gen. (Greg Zanetti)
He is not a judge and jury and probably doesn't speak Arabic and probably
doesn't understand what the prisoners have and are experiencing. How about
the 50 prisoners who are fasting and being painfully forcefed through their noses.

These persons, some terrorists and some just happened to be the wrong place
at the wrong time, should be tried on US soil, with constitutional trials, without
secret evidence. If found guilty, they should be imprisoned for a long time here."

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DianeDimond February 12, 2009 at 3:42 am

FaceBook Reader Ben S – Military JAG writes:

"Very informative article on GITMO, Diane. I learned some things, e.g. – that 770 detainees have been at GITMO, currently about 250. Also, they have a great physical situation there, with halal meals, etc. I was aware of the feces throwing incidents. But, I think the quotes you got that need the widest dissemination as possible are:

“These are bad men,” General Zanetti told me after his recent return to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico. “There is an edge to these guys Americans just don’t understand.” In a slow, emphatic voice he said, “They want us dead.”

Excellent interview! You really got to the heart of the issue."

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Lyn February 12, 2009 at 4:05 am

God….this is all beyond me. I have read all of the above comments and I am as confused as hell!! Too much for my British grey matter to take! My head is spinning but thanks to all for giving me something to think about….

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sue May 31, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Hi Lyn, I had a feeling I might find you over here. Didn't I tell you that the people are brainiac's. This is a good place to come and get grounded. I humbly read and then leave very quietly. Have a nice day Lyn. See you on FB…..Sue

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DianeDimond February 12, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Reader Paul B. writes:

" Thank you so much for your recent article on the detention center at Guantanomo Bay. This is not an easy issue and I appreciate that you touched on both sides of the issue. I don't think very many people understood before just who was being detained. (Our eyes are opened now!) I was in the Navy for 20 years and I didn't want to know everything that was going on. Maybe some things are not for public consumption; maybe there are issues better left to soldiers and intelligence personnel. I am afraid that statement would make some people angry."

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Nathan Anderson February 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

It looks like the only real dilemma here is what happens to those that are acquitted? Obviously, they need to stand trial and either be housed in a U.S. prison or released. But where to release them? If their home countries won't accept them, do we let them go right here in the U.S.A.? I don't think anyone would stand for that.

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DianeDimond March 11, 2009 at 1:51 am

FaceBook Friend James R. writes:

" "Great blog entry on Gitmo by the way. I spoke to a previous commander who said the same thing. Also a friend of mine who dealt with one of the inmates — said the detainee wold have killed him on the spot if he hadn't been in manacles. Those who won't admit evil exists in the world will learn about it on terms evil chooses."

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jeannieology March 20, 2009 at 4:08 am

This whole thing is unbelieveable
http://jeannieology.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/excu

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DianeDimond March 20, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Huffington Post Reader Cheryl C. writes:

" I read your Feb. 8, 2009 article in the Huffington Post about the Gitmo detainees and wondered what you thought about Holder’s recent statements that some of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners could be released into the United States?

You wrote in your article that the Guantanamo Bay prisoners are “the worst of the worst” according to the General Zanetti and that whey want us dead! Yet Holder is considering placing them in the United States, among Americans! Why would he even consider doing that? At least if he is going to release them, why doesn’t he just deport them back to their country of origin? Does Holder have a death wish for Americans? Isn’t he putting those prisoner’s loves above Americans?

I am just curious as to your opinion about Holder’s position. Would you want one of these prisoners living in your community?

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DianeDimond March 21, 2009 at 12:15 am

Cheryl ~
Well, Cheryl, my immediate reaction is "Hell No!" But in America you're innocent until proven guilty, right?

I couldn't really figure out what Holder meant. Did he mean he'd already decided which ones were ok to come live in, say, Cleveland or Austin, Texas?! And what was the criteria he used to determine that?!

Or did he mean, bring some of them to America – have trials for them and if they are found not guilty then – hey! – what the heck, let them settle where ever they want.

The Obama administration has themselves between a rock and a hard place on its promise to close Gitmo. Sounds great – but where the heck are they gonna send these bad guys? As I wrote their own countries don't want them back…neither do any other countries. I'm afraid we'll have to bring them all stateside and lock em up…..er…..uhmmmm, where? I dunno. But where ever it is there will surely be public outcry!

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