01.06.12

Terry Carrico, Ex-Guantánamo Prison Commander, Says Facility Should Close

A decade after the prison camp opened, its first warden speaks out against U.S. detention policies in the war on terror and tells Aram Roston the facility should be closed.

Ten years ago, Army Colonel Terry Carrico watched a C-141 land at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. He had planned for the moment carefully, and he knew very well what the cargo was: 20 detainees sent from Afghanistan. Carrico was the first camp commander of what would become the world’s most famous terrorism prison, and this was its opening day.

He had choreographed, with machinelike precision, how his soldiers would take custody of the shackled, blindfolded detainees as they were led onto the tarmac from the cavernous plane. With 23 years of service as a military police officer, he didn’t let any emotion register in his face that day as he watched, but he was surprised at the appearance of the prisoners.

They were scrawny and malnourished to an alarming degree, hardly appearing like the crazed fanatics that Gen. Richard Myers, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, described that day back at a Pentagon press conference. “These are people,” the general said, invoking an alarming image, “that would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down, I mean.”

Carrico recalls that the detainees were actually compliant and docile that first day.

Now a corporate executive in Georgia, he considers the debate that is still raging over U.S. detention policy from a unique perspective, and he has reached conclusions that run counter to the prevailing political trends in Washington. The retired colonel says Guantánamo “should be closed," though he believes it never will be. He says “very few” of the men held there had valuable intelligence, at least while he ran the camp.

Carrico also says plainly that he believes it is wrong to keep people indefinitely without trial based on secret evidence. He argues that people captured in the war on terror should be arrested and tried in courts of law, not locked up at places like Guantánamo. “It goes against the way I was trained and what I believe,” he tells The Daily Beast, “to hold someone indefinitely with lack of evidence or proof.”

“Due process of law, all the things that we stand for as a country, and being a country of laws, it doesn’t sit well with me that we are going to continue to keep people in Guantánamo,” he said.

Carrico has the unusual credentials for someone making these points, for he was essentially the facility’s first warden.

It was in the final days of December 2001 that then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly announced that the U.S. military enclave in Cuba was the “least worst place” for a detention facility. The war in Afghanistan was underway, Kabul had fallen to U.S.-led forces, and captured prisoners were beginning to fill a makeshift site in Kandahar in the cold winter.

Carrico got his assignment late in December and landed at Guantánamo 72 hours later. He was shown some outdoor chain-link pens, overgrown by tropical weeds. “They were basically outdoor cages,” Carrico said, “It’s what you would normally find in a veterinarian’s facilities to hold animals.”

He took charge of the effort and worked fast: they were told to expect as many as 300 prisoners.

It was Jan. 11, 2002, less than two weeks after he got to Guantánamo that the first shipment arrived. Remember, this was before the Bush administration had announced that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to these detainees.

It was a different time: The U.S. had not yet adopted controversial secret interrogation rules, or techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions to induce pain, forced nakedness, and other practices that created discomfort.

Still, Guantánamo was a harsh place even in those early days. Within weeks, as more and more detainees arrived on the flights from Afghanistan, Carrico wondered whether they were really capturing the worst of the worst. The detainees included an obviously mentally disturbed prisoner who was quickly dubbed “Crazy Bob.”

The heads and faces of the detainees, even the elderly ones, had been shaved in Afghanistan before their flight—a final insult to all of them on their departure. The guards back in Kandahar had done it.

Carrico said few seemed like they had valuable intelligence about terrorism. He said in the first few weeks, Rumsfeld arrived, and Carrico walked with him through the chain-link fences, passing the prisoners in orange.

“’I toured Camp X-ray with him and he said, ‘Colonel, what do you think we have here?’ and I said, ‘I think we have a bunch of soldiers there that were being paid.’ And I questioned their intelligence value.”

Rumsfeld’s response, Carrico said, was, “ ‘You know, Colonel, I think you are right.’ ”

Carrico was convinced that Rumsfeld agreed with him. “His impression was that they were not of any great intelligence value,” Carrico told The Daily Beast.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research uncovered a 2003 memo from Rumsfeld, which indicated he knew that detainees at Guantánamo had little valuable information. “We need to stop populating Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) with low-level enemy combatants,” Rumsfeld wrote back then.

“Due process of law, all the things that we stand for as a country ... It doesn’t sit well with me that we are going to continue to keep people in Guantánamo.”

Rumsfeld’s office said he could not be reached for comment on this story.

Back in 2002, even Carrico himself insisted to reporters that the detainees were a deadly threat. “They are dangerous people,” he said in one interview back then. “Some of these people are directly related or responsible for 9/11.”

Now he explains, “at the time, we didn’t really know who we were receiving in detail.” He said he assumed everyone who was sent there must have been linked to the war on terrorism. "I made the statement,” he acknowledges. “I guess at the time I didn’t give it a second thought that they were not tied to 9/11 directly.”

The alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, weren’t transferred to Guantánamo until 2006, five years after the prison opened. They were sent from CIA custody, and they are still housed separately from the other detainees.

Carrico’s job wasn’t to interrogate, it was solely to make sure the detainees were housed, fed, and secured properly. When it came to interrogations, he says, the general who ran the intelligence operations tried to ban military police officers from the rooms.

Carrico says he wouldn’t let that happen, insisting that his MPs always accompany the detainees when they were interrogated. “My MPs were going to ensure that detainees were not assaulted or mistreated in interrogation,” he says.

In February 2002, President Bush famously issued an order announcing that prisoners were not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions, although he said they would be treated in a matter “consistent” with the conventions.

Carrico, who had been trained to run prisoner-of-war camps, says the president’s declaration didn’t affect him. “My training was founded in the Geneva Conventions and fair and humane treatment.”

But Carrico left Guantánamo in May 2002, and later that year the facility launched new procedures, where interrogation tactics and inmate treatment became increasingly coercive and unpredictable. By October 2002, Rumsfeld had signed a document authorizing aggressive interrogation techniques that included sleep deprivation, forced standing, the use of hot or cold temperatures, and other approaches. Guantánamo’s practices were later copied in Iraq and Afghanistan, investigations have found.

“If we did treatment that was in violation of the Geneva Convention,” Carrico says, “then I disagree with it.”

Since 2002, of course, the facility has undergone various phases and transformations. President Obama came to office vowing to close it down, and though that is still his administration’s policy, not a single detainee has been transferred out of Guantánamo since January 2011.

Some 171 men are still being held. Defense lawyers and former detainees say conditions have improved dramatically, but the legal status of the inmates is just as murky as ever. Dozens have been approved for release off the island but are still held there. Still others, the Obama administration says, will be tried by military commissions.

And 48 are in yet another category: they have been ruled to be too dangerous to release and yet impossible to ever prosecute in either military or civilian courts, according to a government task force.

Carrico says he thinks Guantánamo should be shut down. “I think it should be closed because it served its purpose,” he argues. Those captured in the future should be tried in court, he argues. Still, he doubts the facility will ever close, given the political realities. Indeed, Congress just passed a defense authorization act, which President Obama signed, requiring military custody for terrorism suspects.