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CNN tours Gitmo prison camp

Military rules prevent crew from getting full picture

From Ben Wedeman
CNN

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A standard cell, with standard-issue items, is shown at Camp Five in Guantanamo Bay.

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Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Cuba)
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George W. Bush

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (CNN) -- President Bush himself challenged reporters to visit the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay amid allegations that American troops mistreated suspected Islamic terrorists held there, so CNN took him up on the offer.

Bush's challenge was first issued at a news conference in June and repeated during a Wednesday visit to Denmark.

It came as the U.S. military scrambles to counter allegations that prisoners at the camp have been mistreated and their Islamic faith mocked by American interrogators.

"These people are being treated humanely. Very few prison systems around the world have seen such scrutiny as this one," Bush said Wednesday.

"And for those of you who are here and have doubt, I suggest buying an airplane ticket and going down and look -- take a look for yourself."

But military ground rules -- including censoring video shot at the facility -- made it nearly impossible for a CNN crew that visited the prison the same day to get a full picture of the prison.

A lawyer for some of the detainees called press tours of the camp "one big charade."

Camp Delta, the detention facility in the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, houses about 520 prisoners.

They come from 44 countries, but most were captured during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against the al Qaeda terrorist network and its local allies, U.S. officials said,

"We are keeping some of the most dangerous terrorists away from the rest of the world," said Col. Michael Bumgarner, commander of the guard force at Camp Delta. "We are securing them and protecting the United States by doing that."

Camp Delta actually includes five different camps. Inside them, prisoners are housed in 6-foot square cells with walls made from steel grate.

Each cell contains a bunk, a toilet and a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. The bed is adorned with an arrow pointing toward Mecca, which Muslims bow toward in prayer.

Reporters were not allowed to see the most ill-behaved inmates, who are kept in a block behind a mesh fence.

About 10 percent of the detainees are classified as "noncompliant," meaning they don't follow camp rules. Guards describe some prisoners regularly pelting them with what they call "cocktail No. 4" -- a mixture of urine, feces, spit and semen.

Most are cooperative and are granted special privileges: white or tan clothing, chess sets, checkerboards and books. Agatha Christie mysteries are the most popular.

CNN employees who visited the prison were not allowed to speak to the prisoners, but an inmate who knew reporters were present shouted, in English, "Bush terrorist. We're all Muslims here."

Other inmates asked journalists to take their picture, which the military prohibits.

U.S. censors required CNN to erase video footage they ruled would allow viewers to identify a prisoner -- standards stricter than American commanders impose on the battlefield.

Two inmates, unaware reporters were present, said they "missed each other" in Arabic with accents from the Persian Gulf region.

And in the hospital wing, one prisoner shouted, in English, "We take the torture in here."

It was not possible to talk to the prisoner about his allegation. Lawyer Clive Smith, who is in Guantanamo representing some of the detainees, said several prisoners have been abused there.

"I'm afraid this whole process in Guantanamo Bay is one big charade. It's a propaganda tour that you go on," Smith said.

"You're not allowed to see the prisoners. You're not allowed to hear their version of the truth. And the only one way to ascertain the truth is to hear both sides, which is too bad."

Bumgarner said U.S. troops' orders are clear: "The policy here is no abuse."

"I can't say that any stronger," he said. "That is not allowed, and that is not a part of our procedures here."

Human rights activists and the Red Cross have criticized the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners from the war on terrorism have been held since early 2002.

An FBI agent's account released in December described prisoners being shackled to the floor without food or water in extreme temperatures for up to 24 hours at a stretch.

Prisoners in those conditions sometimes urinated or defecated on themselves, the agent reported.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois raised a furor when he read that account on the Senate floor in June and said, "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings."

The White House, which insists prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, called Durbin's remarks "reprehensible."

Durbin apologized for the remarks a week later after a week of criticism from Republicans. (Full story)

CNN's Eric Fiegel contributed to this report.

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