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Q&A About Guantanamo Bay and the Detainees

The United States military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been holding prisoners from the invasion of Afghanistan and the war on terror since early 2002. The detainees, as they are most frequently called, are held in a legal limbo, with no clear future.

While some critics have called for the release of the prisoners, the U.S. government is upgrading the prison at Guantanamo with facilities that are more permanent in nature than the buildings used to this point.

NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam answers questions about the situation as it now stands:

Q: How many people are being held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay?

At least 520, according to the Pentagon. But the military will not release an exact figure. Several Members of Congress have tried to find out the exact figure, but they haven't succeeded.

Has anyone been released from the facility?

At its height, Guantanamo Bay held about 750 prisoners. The military has released more than 200 people from the camp -- most have been returned to their home countries. But the government says that as many as 12 people released from Guantanamo have returned to the battlefield to fight again against U.S. interests.

Are new prisoners still being delivered there?

Yes, but it's slowed down to a trickle, only one or two prisoners at a time.

Where did the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay come from?

According to the military, most were picked up in Afghanistan. The adminstration likes to use the term "captured on the battlefield." Their nationalities vary. Many come from countries such as Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- but there are some from Britain and Australia, too. The Pentagon says the detainees fought alongside the Taliban during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan or they have direct links to Al Qaeda. There have been repeated allegations that some of the prisoners were handed over to the U.S. by bounty hunters associated with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan -- a group which fought against the Taliban.

Is that information reliable?

It's hard to be certain who the prisoners really are because the administration keeps much of the information about the detainees secret. Any information about who is being held at the prison camp has come out through documents that have been released through the Freedom of Information Act, by a small group of defense attornies, or through tribunals held at Guantanamo which are designed to determine whether a detainee is still considered a threat.

How long have the prisoners been there?

Many, if not most, have been held there for more than three years. The U.S. started moving prisoners there in January, 2002. All but a few detainees have been held without any contact with the outside world, with no legal representation, no charges filed against them. At the beginning, they were interrogated fairly regularly. Some still are. But the Pentagon and military officials at Guantanamo have acknowledged that some of the prisoners aren't being interrogated now. They just sit in their cells day after day -- a sort of open-ended detentions.

What are they charged with?

Only four detainees have been charged. Their trials -- which the Pentagon calls military commissions -- got underway in August 2004. But that process is stalled. An appeals judge said that the men had not been given proper due process. That decision came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to challenge their detentions in American courts. A decision by the military on what will happen next to the four men is still pending.

Why are they being held at Guantanamo?

The federal government hoped it could escape jurisdiction of the courts if the prisoners were held outside of the United States. The Supreme Court case centered on a challenge to that assumption. The issue is still not settled.

Has Guantanamo ever served as a prison camp before?

No. It was a sleeply little U.S. Navy port, of dwindling importance, until the American government decided to use it as a prison camp. Now, it has thousands of U.S. military personnel, as well as civilians from agencies such as the CIA. A new prison called Camp 5 is up and running. It is a hard- walled prison, unlike the chain-link cells that have been used for about three years. Another prison is about to go up, construction is finished on an intelligence headquarters at the base and ground has been broken for a new hospital for the prisoners, one which includes a psychiatric wing.

Who runs the facility?

A joint task force, or JTF, is responsible for running Guantanamo. For the most part, the Army had the largest contingent of people, and many of those were reserves. Interrogations are conducted by both the military and officials from the FBI, the CIA and others.

Who is allowed to see the people being held there?

The press has been allowed on the base. I've been there six times. But the military exercises extreme control. They let you see only what they want you to see. On any of the tours of the camp, we can see prisoners being held in the medium-security section of the camp. These are the most compliant detainees who have more freedom than the others. They're allowed more recreation time, they live in more of a dorm-type building. But we can't talk to them. Every interaction between the media and prisoners is scripted by the military. The same restrictions apply to politicians who go there to investigate the conditions at Guantanamo.

What did you see?

I was once allowed to visit a maximum-security cellblock with prisoners in it. The animosity between the guards and prisoners was almost palpable. The prisoners were just laying around in what are, essentially, open-air cages. A tin roof covered the facility. In contrast, there is some beautiful scenery outside of the prison. Blue-green waters of the sea wash up on the shore.

How are the prisoners treated?

Physically, their needs seem to be met. They're allowed some recreation. The military says it gives the detainees meals that are sensitive to their religious and cultural dietary needs. But the mental health of many detainees seems to be questionable. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is the only aid agency allowed to visit the detainees, broke its silence and issued a statement saying that many prisoners are suffering mental deterioration. The open-ended detentions appeared to be the key problem. Dozens of the detainees have attempted suicide, although none has been successful.

Where does the public's information about Guantanamo come from?

Mostly it comes from the U.S. government, and it has not been particularly open with supplying information. Most has to be pried out through things such as the Freedom of Information Act. Even then it took a court order to force the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA to release documents. But, again, this is a very slow process. The CIA has yet to turn over one document. And there is some valuable information coming out in the documents that have been turned over, such as FBI e-mails that were released. The e-mails show FBI agents complaining about the harsh interrogation tactics used on detainees by the military, and questioned whether those tactics produced good intelligence.

Critics have said the camp ought to be closed. Where might the prisoners would go if that happened?

No one knows. There are other far-flung military bases at place like Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam in the Pacific Ocean. That could make it even harder for journalists and Members of Congress to get out to keep an eye on what's happening.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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