Guantanamo conditions improving, lawmakers agree after tour
Democrats, GOP say work needed on legal process
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Progress has been made to improve conditions and protect detainees' rights at the US prison for suspected terrorists, according to House Republicans and Democrats, including one who has advocated closing the facility.
The US lawmakers witnessed interrogations, toured cellblocks, and ate the same lunch given to detainees on the first congressional visit to the prison since criticism of conditions there intensified in the spring.
''The Guantanamo we saw today is not the Guantanamo we heard about a few years ago," said Representative Ellen Tauscher, Democrat of California.
Still, lawmakers from both parties agree that more must be done to ensure an adequate legal process is in place to handle detainee cases. In the meantime, said Representative Joe Schwarz, Republican of Michigan, ''I think they're doing the best they can to define due process here."
Republicans and Democrats alike fear the prison at the Navy base in eastern Cuba is hurting America's image because of claims that interrogators have abused and tortured inmates.
The White House and Pentagon say conditions are humane and detainees are treated well.
Lawmakers wanted to see for themselves.
After receiving a classified briefing from base commanders, the House delegation ate lunch with troops -- the same meal of chicken with orange sauce, rice, and okra that detainees were served. They then toured several of the barbed-wire camps where detainees are housed, viewing small cells as well as dusty recreation yards and other common areas.
From behind one-way mirrors, lawmakers watched interrogators grilling three terrorism suspects. None of the interrogators touched detainees.
In one session, they questioned a man who defense officials said was a Saudi national and an admitted Al Qaeda member who was picked up in Afghanistan and knew nine of the hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
In another, a female interrogator took an unusual approach to wear down a detainee, reading a Harry Potter book aloud for hours. He turned his back and put his hands over his ears.
Bearded detainees in white frocks, flip-flops, and skullcaps quietly lingered nearby, although behind fences. At one communal camp for those given privileges because of good behavior, detainees played soccer.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, is one of many Democrats who have called for an independent commission to investigate abuse allegations and said the facility should close.
Lee stopped short of changing her position after the visit, but acknowledged, ''What we've seen here is evidence that we've made progress."
The White House and Pentagon have defended their policies at the prison almost daily in recent weeks.
At a recent news conference, the president invited journalists to visit the prison and see that the allegations were false. The Pentagon says about 400 news organizations have toured the prison since it opened.
A small contingent of journalists joined House lawmakers on this weekend's trip.
But military escorts controlled how much journalists were able to see and hear. In an unclassified briefing, commanders emphasized the ''safe and humane custody and control of detainees" by troops.
On a tour of one camp occupied by detainees considered ''high value" for providing intelligence, journalists saw no detainees but watched as troops passed meals through small cells on one block. At the sound of visitors, detainees shouted and pounded on closed doors. Journalists entered an interrogation room that contained a set of handcuffs and a small table, as well as a folding chair and two padded office chairs.
Human rights investigators for the United Nations urged the United States to allow them inside to inspect the facility.
They cited ''persistent and credible" reports of ''serious allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees" as well as arbitrary detentions and violations of rights.
In response, Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN on Thursday that the detainees are well treated, well fed, and ''living in the tropics."