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5 years after detainees' arrival, policy questions remain

MIAMI—Only a few reporters and military escorts were allowed to observe the airstrip at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2002, when the U.S. military cargo plane touched down bearing its bizarre and scary cargo: 20 men in day-glo orange jumpsuits, chains and masks.

Marines surrounded them, shouting as they led them—stumbling and shackled at the ankles—down a steel ramp. Then, one by one, they crumpled to their knees on the tarmac in the searing Caribbean heat.

It was a scene that, to me, still symbolizes the controversies that soon would entangle the Bush administration's effort to imprison and interrogate war-on-terrorism captives, mostly Arab men held beyond the routine reach of U.S. courts.

Did they collapse from the sudden blast of heat after a 27-hour, 8,000-mile sensory-deprived flight from icy Afghanistan?

Were the Marines at their elbows easing each man to the ground as they collapsed? Or was it overpowering force to show each prisoner that the U.S. Marines were now in charge?

Was it a humiliating end to what had to be a surreal odyssey inside the belly of a noisy, chilly American military cargo plane? Or the start of a humane captivity that military briefers emphasize meets the Pentagon's highest standards of American values?

America's experiment in detaining terrorism suspects offshore turns five years old Thursday, and the policy questions that occurred to me during that raw, frightening, bitter aftermath of the 9-11 attacks are still relevant today:

_The military has the right to hold war-on-terrorism captives indefinitely, without charge, because President Bush declared it so, and so far the U.S. courts have upheld those powers. But how long is indefinite? Will we know when the war has ended?

_The Bush administration says that one-fifth at most of the men and teens held there today could face trial someday. But what kind of trial? By whom?

_Since Vietnam, Americans have expected their leaders to provide the military with an exit strategy. How do you undo a far-flung, international roundup from dozens of countries, especially after years caged up without charge?

_The Bush administration argues that this is an extraordinary war that requires extraordinary means. But when does a combination of tactics constitute abuse, as some allege? When does it add up to torture? In the end, who will judge?

I now know that aboard that first cargo plane was an Australian named David Hicks, who, allegedly in league with the Taliban, fired on U.S. troops invading Afghanistan. He was ISN No. 002, an internment serial number that still belongs to his paperwork and him today, his 1,826th day of confinement at what I came to call The Alcatraz of the Caribbean.

It was a little more than two weeks after then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had taken to the Pentagon podium to declare the 45-square-mile swath of U.S.-controlled Cuba "the least worst place" to hold alleged terrorists.

Hicks and the others on that first flight—we still don't know their names—would be the vanguard of hundreds of others on later flights to fill the crude compound called Camp X-Ray.

Reporters were allowed to watch from afar, even as interrogators, Red Cross delegates and congressional day-trippers on field trips to the war on terrorism walked inside.

I've never been permitted to converse with a single detainee. Pentagon policy shields captives from media interviews, under an interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that casts news interviews as humiliating.

Covering this story has been difficult, especially digging up the numbers from the offices along the 17 miles of Pentagon corridors, eerily analogous to the mileage of the fence surrounding Guantanamo.

I've been invited to report from Guantanamo Bay dozens of times. Somewhere there's a count of how many times I paid $12 a night for my share of four-bedroom military accommodations.

I've been ejected once, by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, after three Arab captives were found hanging in their cells last June. Rumsfeld's public affairs staff said it was swamped with so many requests that it decided to pull the plug on news coverage of the episode from the island base.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Brian Maka, last week gave me a list of $199.9 million spent so far in detention center-related construction projects there. Rumsfeld estimated an annual $95 million operating budget. But nobody will give a global figure on what the enterprise has cost taxpayers.

Here's one figure I do know: Three U.S. soldiers have died on assignment there, none through detainee violence. That's the same as the number of captives who have died there, ostensibly by suicide, though their autopsies still are shielded from public scrutiny as part of a Navy investigation.

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(Carol Rosenberg is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. She has reported on the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, as part of the U.S. war on terrorism since before the first detainees arrived there.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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