Administration Draws Fire for Report on Guantánamo
WASHINGTON - The Pentagon official who inspected the Guantánamo Bay prison at the behest of President Obama and declared its conditions humane described himself Monday as a "fresh set of eyes" who had been given free rein to go about his work.
But detainees' lawyers and human rights groups ridiculed the 85-page report that the official, Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, sent to the White House this weekend. They called it a public relations gesture by the new administration to try to quiet criticism of the prison while officials work to close it within a year.
"There is no basis to believe, other than his say-so, that this was an independent report," said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Coming in the early days of the Obama administration, the exchange was notable for its similarity to the back-and-forth during the Bush years over what the Guantánamo prison is really like.
Admiral Walsh, appointed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to conduct a review of Guantánamo conditions that was ordered by the president, conceded that there had been widespread accusations of violence against detainees, humiliating treatment and other abuses.
But "we found no such evidence," he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Rather, he said, after random visits and interviews with detainees, guards, interrogators and commanders, his team concluded that Guantánamo complied with the Geneva Conventions, which among other things bar "humiliating and degrading treatment." The report addressed 27 categories of treatment, including health care and disciplinary rules.
It also proposed many possible improvements, including more human contact for detainees and, to assure humane treatment, videotaping their interaction with guards.
But detainees' lawyers issued their own report, and produced letters from some of their clients, describing severe isolation, brutal tactics and detainees so addled by hopelessness that some banged their heads against the concrete walls of their cells. "Just let me die," one detainee was quoted as saying.
Several of the critics focused on the fact that the finding of humane conditions came from a senior official of the very department, the Pentagon, that has been running the Guantánamo prison through years of international criticism. Admiral Walsh is the vice chief of naval operations, and the prison is on a naval base at the southeastern tip of Cuba.
"The real question is, Is this administration going to expect us to view this as a closed issue?" said Tom Parker, advocacy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International.
"If they are," Mr. Parker added, "they're going to be disappointed."
Amnesty International and several other human rights groups have long been denied permission for independent inspections of the prison that would include interviews with detainees. The International Committee of the Red Cross does visit Guantánamo, but, in keeping with its longtime policy intended to abet its access to detention centers and the like, its reports are issued only to those who run the centers, not to the public.
Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, the Navy's chief of information, said the criticism of Admiral Walsh's report did not take note of its detailed nature or the fact that it had been made public.
In addition, "Admiral Walsh has a longstanding reputation for honesty and credibility," Admiral Thorp said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the criticism.
But in the community of lawyers and human rights monitors who have helped make the prison an international issue, there was a certain familiarity to Monday's dispute. For years they have been the chief source of information about a center that in the past, at least, was a place of documented instances of mistreatment.
Sarah Havens, a New York lawyer who has been visiting clients there since 2004, said she was not surprised that the military was reporting that it had been doing a good job. But, Ms. Havens said, her observations during a recent visit were different from Admiral Walsh's.
"In my experience," she said, "the conditions at Guantánamo are worse than they have ever been. The detainees are at a breaking point."
Admiral Walsh, in contrast, referred to a "high quality of care" at Guantánamo and said commanders were always working on improvements.
Describing one of the concrete prison buildings that detainees' lawyers have described as reminiscent of something medieval, he said: "It's new. It's modern."
Visit by Attorney General
WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. visited the Guantánamo detention center on Monday, one step in the administration's review of what is needed to shut it.
A large part of the tour by Mr. Holder, who was not accompanied by reporters, involved talks with officials about detention and interrogation practices.
A Justice Department spokesman, Matthew A. Miller, said the attorney general was talking to military officers about the case histories of specific detainees and the charges that were pending before the president suspended military commissions as part of a thorough review of policy toward terrorism suspects.