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A Model Prison

Since 9/11, the United States has worked with its friends and allies to confront and defeat the enemies of liberty and freedom. In addition to forming coalitions to engage in the enemy on the battlefield, the United States has engaged in dialogue with its European allies to explain its legal approach to the new challenges in the war on terrorism.

It goes without saying that the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay have been a friction point in the war on terror since detainees were first brought there in January 2002. Without doubt, the Administration could and should have done more to explain to the public and our allies its rationale for choosing Guantanamo Bay as a detention center. That said, over the past few years, the Administration did increase substantially the number of visitors to Guantanamo Bay, both national and international, to allow them to see for themselves the standard of care and treatment detainees receive.

During 2006 alone, three separate groups of European parliamentarians visited the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Prior to touring Guantanamo, each delegation was given a full day of briefings at the State Department headquarters and the Pentagon by top administration officials. Delegation members were allowed to ask any question they wanted, and all of the briefings and conversations with Administration officials were on-the-record.

The three groups were:

  1. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe,
  2. The Trans-Atlantic Policy Organization, and
  3. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the United Kingdom.

The post-trip report by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee is available online, as is a follow-up report.

Public comments by the European delegations regarding the conditions of detention were very positive. While each of the groups members has ultimately called for the eventual closure of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, their trips have re-focused the debate and discussion about Guantanamo Bay from whether the care and treatment of detainees is adequate (they all had very positive things to say), to a discussion of what is the proper legal framework for holding the enemy during wartime.

Following are several representative impressions.

"At the level of detention facilities, it is a model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons."

- Alain Grignard, Deputy Head of Brussels' federal police anti-terrorism unit. Grignard visited as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe visit in March 2006.

"My impression is that the camp is run with the utmost professionalism and the conditions under which detainees are being held are clean and humane, and follow the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. The reality of Gitmo is very different from the largely negative portrait given by the press on our side of the Atlantic. Until the issue of what happens to detainees is resolved, the closing of Guantanamo could make the war on terrorism more difficult and ultimately more dangerous for our citizens."

- James Elles, Member of the European Parliament, after his visit on May 22, 2006.

"I think the conditions are much better now. It is not comparable anymore to what we saw at Camp X-Ray in 2002. The way people are dealt with is much better now, but that does not solve the principle problem. For the moment, they [detainees] have everything they need in their cells. They have good food, they have first-class medical service and they also have a chance, if the guards believe that they have behaved well, to have better conditions, including sports facilities."

- Elmar Brok, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, after his visit on May 22, 2006.

In short, the facilities at Guantanamo are broadly comparable to other detainment facilities around the world and, in most cases, exceed world standards. Though the detainees there may not be covered by the Geneva Conventions, they certainly enjoy facilities and treatment that meet, and surpass, the Conventions' requirements.