By John Hendren
Los Angeles Times
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – The first clutch of 20 prisoners arrived at a makeshift prison on a sliver of American soil Friday, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks that touched off the U.S. war on terrorism and 27 hours after leaving a Kandahar, Afghanistan prison.
The first detainee limped off the Air Force C-141 Starlifter plane at 1:50 p.m. local time, bound and shackled, wearing an orange jumpsuit, turquoise face mask and a cap with goggles. The 20 were chosen by the threat they posed, said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of the joint task force responsible for the prisoners.
“These represent the worst elements of al-Qaida and the Taliban,” Lehnert said. “We asked for the bad guys first.”
Several appeared to resist as they stepped into the 85-degree heat, although Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello said they might have been disoriented from the flight.
At one point, observers heard shouting, but it was unclear whether it came from the detainees or from Marines barking commands. Some prisoners were pushed to their knees and frisked. Some were ordered to remove their shoes for inspection.
Looming amid the vultures circling overhead was a Navy Huey helicopter with a gunner leaning out the side. On the cactus-strewn plain below stood about 50 heavily armed soldiers from all four U.S. military services, many wearing Kevlar vests, helmets and face shields. One Humvee bore a grenade launcher. Two had 50-caliber machine guns. Offshore was a small Navy patrol boat.
One prisoner was sedated en route, military officials said without elaborating. Military commanders, who had studied pro-Taliban prisoner uprisings in Pakistan and in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, were taking no chances, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down,” Myers told reporters.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied that the cagelike cells, hoods and sedatives used on prisoners might violate international standards, as charged by the rights group Amnesty International.
Lehnert, the general overseeing the prisoners, said their existence at Guantanamo would be “humane but not comfortable.” They would be free to practice their religion and given meals consistent with their Muslim diet, he said.
Although the Pentagon plans to use the Geneva rules as a general guide, Rumsfeld said, the detainees would not fall under those rules because they were not uniformed soldiers in a recognized military. Instead, they would be treated as “unlawful combatants.”
From the ranks of these and other prisoners, described by their captors as ranging from homicidal to suicidal, U.S. intelligence officials have culled a bonanza of information, Rumsfeld said.
Interrogations and hundreds of items seized from prisoners and their cave and bunker hideouts – computers, address books, cell phones and training guides – are helping to identify the fates of other senior leaders and prevent terror attacks, Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon briefing.
The number of U.S. prisoners by Friday was 445. Defense officials would not say how many would be moved to Guantanamo or how soon, but Lehnert said he expected “periodic shipments.”