Welcome to Camp X-Ray

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Al Qaeda prisoners at Camp X-Ray

It's not going to be a country club," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week, describing the new military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and nobody ever expected it would be. The 110 al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners admitted to "Gitmo" by the end of last week are, said Rumsfeld, "the hardest of the hard core," men who had killed "dozens and dozens of people." But though it may lack tennis courts and a putting green, the amenities are better than you'd find in a cave at Tora Bora. True, prisoners are now confined to 6-ft. by 8-ft. chain-link enclosures with concrete floors and tin roofs (Rumsfeld thinks it's "pejorative" to call them cages). But relief will come; in three months, the Pentagon hopes to replace the facility with something more permanent.

In the meantime, the prisoners at Camp X-Ray--as the place has been called since the early 1990s when it housed Haitian refugees--have been given thin green mats and blankets on which to sleep and pray, and are allowed to shower and exercise. They are provided with a medical exam upon admission, and their diet (is someone making a point about diversity here?) ranges from bagels and cream cheese to rice and beans--all eaten with plastic utensils--after which the prisoners may clean their teeth with specially shortened brushes. (The caution makes sense; in 2000 Mamdouh Salim, an al-Qaeda operative awaiting trial in New York City for his part in the 1998 embassy bombings, used a comb to stab a prison guard through the eye.)

So far, humanitarian groups have been muted in their criticism of the conditions at Guantanamo. Last week a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived to inspect the camp and offer private recommendations on its operation. But in the European press, the prisoners' lot has become a public issue of contention among those who demand that U.S. conduct be above suspicion. Three detainees are said to have claimed to be British citizens. Politicians and commentators in London are now clamoring that all held in Gitmo must be guaranteed treatment in accordance with international law. The Daily Telegraph, a paper usually so conservative that it makes Pat Buchanan look vegetarian, warned Washington of the need to draw a "distinction between civilized society and the apocalyptic savagery of those who would destroy it."

At the heart of the matter is a question of legality. The Pentagon has resisted calling the detainees prisoners of war, preferring the terms unlawful combatants or battlefield detainees. It's easy to see why. Under the Geneva Convention, those holding true POWs are bound to release them at the end of hostilities; but that is the last thing the U.S. wants to do with men who may be al-Qaeda operatives. Moreover, by convention (though the law seems to be murky here) POWs don't need to tell their captors anything other than their name, rank, serial number and birthday. But for Washington, the whole point of the detention is to conduct interrogations and thus head off new acts of terrorism.

The Geneva Convention does contemplate that some irregular forces captured in battle need not be considered POWs. That may well apply to members of al-Qaeda, a free-floating band of terrorists. But not all of those at Gitmo are al-Qaeda men. Some--the Pentagon won't say how many--were members of the Taliban and presumably thought they were part of the Afghan army. Are they POWs? Washington says no, because the Taliban had no clear chain of command and was not a legitimate government. That may be so; unfortunately, as Amnesty International has pointed out, under the Geneva Convention the Pentagon has no business making such a determination. Those who fall into the enemy's hands are entitled to POW status until a "competent tribunal" has determined their status. In the case of those in Cuba, that hasn't happened.

More curious still is the matter of the prisoners' ultimate fate. Rumsfeld has laid out four options: a military trial, a trial in U.S. criminal courts, return to their home countries for prosecution, or continued detention "while additional intelligence is gathered." The last seems a distinct possibility; the Pentagon plans to build 2,000 cells at Camp X-Ray. "This will be a big deal down there for at least two years, guaranteed," says Army Lieut. General B.B. Bell, who commands Fort Hood, Texas, the base from which military police have been deployed to Cuba. But it's hard to find a justification for such detention in the Geneva Convention or anywhere else. Leaving the prisoners "indefinitely beyond the reach of any legal regime," said the Economist last week, "would put America--pre-eminently a nation of laws--itself outside the law."

Until the Pentagon sorts out the legal issues, criticism from Europe is likely to grow. Still, things could be worse. The prisoners may be in Cuba, but nobody has yet forced them to listen to Fidel Castro's long-winded speeches. Now that really would be cruel.