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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 22 March, 2018

Extract: ‘Soldiers have an affinity with the detainees in Guantanamo. It would be bad to shoot them – it’ll be lethal injection’

The new book, Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy, charts Tom Clonan’s progression from soldier to academic and journalist and offers an honest and vivid account of life on and off duty.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist,
Camp Echo, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, October 2005

IT SOUNDS INCONGRUOUS as the rising sun bears down on the massive stars and stripes flying next to the steel ring-fence that surrounds Camp Echo.

Camp Echo is markedly different from the single-storey steel and concrete cell blocks of Camp Delta. Architecturally, the newly built facility is ultra modern. Sheila tells me that it is modelled on Miami County Prison, Indiana.

It is a fully automated, fully air-conditioned, all bells and whistles, state-of-the-art maximum-security prison. ‘It incorporates,’ Jim proudly announces, ‘the very best features of the most secure lock-down facilities in the United States.’ It is a frightening, forbidding building and is alien in almost every respect. It is space-age for certain. Like something out of a science fiction nightmare.

Sheila tells me that Echo holds around 16 percent of Guantanamo’s prison population. She tells me that there is a mix of compliant and non-compliant detainees. What marks them out from their peers in the rest of the camp is their perceived intelligence value. Jim pipes up that some of them are on suicide watch. Sheila and Helen glower at him. He fails to notice and jabs at bits of Egg McMuffin with his toothpick. I’m taking notes as we go.

A brooding building

A marine opens the Sally Port in the perimeter fence and we approach the brooding building. The prison looks permanent. It does not have the transitional ‘internment camp’ feel that Camp Delta possesses. Camp Echo has been built with the medium- to long-term future in mind. We are met by a young lieutenant who shows us around. The front entrance is monitored electronically and opens automatically.


Tom Clonan at Camp Delta.

There are four wings within the prison, each capable of holding twenty-four prisoners.
Each cell is painted white and has its own slit window permitting natural light to enter. They are each equipped with a bed, stainless steel sink and toilet. Camp 5 has an eerie feel to it – a sterile, sanitised building with security doors that crash shut.

At the centre of the building behind one-way plate glass windows, a central control room monitors each cell remotely. The prisoners are under surveillance constantly, 24/7. There are multiple microphones in each room.

The stillness within the airless chambers of the prison give it a tomb-like quality. The prisoners detained within it, for an indeterminate period, seem to me like the living dead. As a tropical thunderstorm rages outside Camp 5, the thunder is barely audible.

Camp Echo has been suitably named; our footsteps reverberate around the artificial space. The entire complex has an air of permanency about it that fills me with foreboding as to the future
of Guantanamo Bay. The massive investment in this facility along with the fact that it is, as yet, only half-full of prisoners deemed to be of high intelligence value to the USA seem to indicate that Guantanamo will be in operation for some years to come.

Interview room

The marine lieutenant is keen to show me an interview room. ‘I believe you asked Captain Edmondson about our interrogation techniques yesterday?’ he enquires. ‘Let me show you a typical interrogation suite. Note, there is no bare light bulb or two-way glass wall, like in the TV cop shows.’ He laughs as a door buzzes open before us. The room, like the cells is painted white. It is carpeted.

Sitting in the middle of the room – somewhat unexpectedly in this mausoleum-like structure – is aregular couch, of the type I have at home in my own living room. It is even the same colour. ‘See?’ says Jim. ‘Real home comforts. Don’t think I’d be sitting on something like that if Al Qaeda ever got me.’

I ask if I can take photographs. Helen and Sheila tell me that it is better if they take the shots so as not to inadvertently include any detail that is prohibited. While Sheila takes some shots of the couch, I notice a stainless steel ring on the floor. I squat down and pull at it. It is firmly anchored to the reinforced concrete floor underneath. The lieutenant explains. ‘That’s where we shackle the detainees.’ He roots around under the couch and pulls out a stainless steel chain and a set of leg irons and handcuffs. ‘See, this is how we restrain ’em.’


Guantanamo Bay prison cells.

I’ve seen enough. My blood runs cold at the sight of these restraints in this room. Next to that couch. On that carpet. It seems obscene to me.

The sick bay

We leave this sad room and continue down the hall. I look to my left and notice a room that is being worked on by some plumbers and electricians. It looks like an operating theatre. ‘Oh, that’s a sick bay,’ the lieutenant tells me. I stop and everyone comes to a halt.

I ask Sheila if they will execute any of the detainees. Sheila tells me that it is impossible to answer that question in advance of the deliberations of their court martial system, which is underway despite legal appeals in the US civil courts.

‘So, you’re not ruling it out then?’ I ask. Sheila looks exasperated, and Captain Jim decides to help her out.

‘Y’see Tom, this isn’t Nuremberg. We’re not going to hang people here, for like, war crimes and such.’ I remark that I’m relieved to hear it. Jim is undaunted. ‘Y’see Tom, believe it or not, the American people believe that hanging is a cruel and unusual punishment.’ Helen and Sheila
look anxious to move on.

‘Can’t shoot’em’

Sheila looks at her watch. Jim keeps going.

‘And we can’t shoot ’em either.’ ‘Why not?’ I ask him. ‘Because, believe it or not, some of our young soldiers and sailors here build up an affinity with the detainees. So it would be bad for morale to shoot them.’ Captain Jim is ready for his finale. He inclines his head at the sick bay and announces, ‘That’s why it’ll probably be by lethal injection. The way we do it stateside.’

I am writing furiously. In a rare moment, Helen speaks. ‘I think it’s time we went over to see the general.’

I’ve been promised an on-the-record interview with the general in charge of the facility. We drive – in silence – over to his headquarters building. We are shown into the major general’s office by a Colonel Stack. Colonel Stack is a tall black man who looks not unlike Sidney Poitier. He grips my hand firmly and tells me, in a very soft-spoken voice, that he has something he wants to discuss with me after my interview with the general.

The general enters the room. Major General Jay Hood. Everyone stands. Myself included. An old military habit I suppose. The general seems pleased and invites me to sit. I ask him, given the investment in Guantanamo, and given the negative public profile it attracts, on a cost-benefit analysis, how the US military is benefitting from the existence of the camp. The general lets out a long sigh.

‘Twofold. One. Some very dangerous men associated with Al Qaeda and other related terrorist organisations are not free to come back at us on the battlefield. So, first off, this is the safe detention of detainees focused on preventing attack, preventing terrorist action by some of the men we’re holding, against the United States.’

Al Qaeda

The general continues. ‘The second thing is the gathering of intelligence. There are still significant pieces of information that we continue to learn about Al Qaeda and some of its key operatives. We know now how they recruit, train and compartmentalise its command and control. We also know how it funds and finances itself. We’re still filling in all sorts of small pieces of intelligence into a giant, international mosaic and we’re making progress. The intelligence value is less tactical and more strategic in nature.’


‘Every single detainee here at GTMO Bay is under my control and any actions involving them are in accordance with DOD Directives at all times,’ he said. I ask him if he can guarantee that. ‘Absolutely. Unequivocally.’

I ask him then if the fact that the prisoners have no exit date and no release date does not constitute a cruel and unusual punishment. The general is less clear. ‘You’re asking me to speculate what’s in their minds . . . I don’t think I’m qualified to do that. What I would point out though . . . It’s not clear when the Global War on Terror will end.’


I ask him then if the incarceration of the prisoners could be indefinite. The general is preparing now to leave. He has a busy schedule. ‘That’s a matter very much for the policy makers.

What I can tell you is that I’ve asked my young soldiers and sailors to focus on their jobs as well as they possibly can and in a professional manner. That’s what will lead us to success and over time we will be able to show folks in the US and in fact around the world in the international community that we intend to do this job properly. For as long as it takes.’

The general stands up and shakes my hand. He almost pulls my arm out of its socket. He retains his grip and looks me in the eye. ‘Tom. While you are here on Guantanamo, you’re my guest. If you have any doubts about the program or the dignity or safety of the detainees, call me. Colonel Stack will give you my cellphone. Call me if you have any questions. Even if it’s at 4 am. And if you want me to open any door on this facility. I mean, literally, any door. Call me and I’ll come open it.’ And with that, the general is gone.

Colonel Stack invites me outside onto the porch for an orange juice. ‘You were in the service I hear.’ I nod. Colonel Stack nods gravely. He tells me that he has traced his cousins online and has made email contact. ‘I’m going home to Wexford next year, Tom, for a visit.’ I wish him well and he tells me.

‘Look, the general is a good man. What he really means is that he is determined that what we do here saves lives on the battlefield. No one wants another 9/11 Tom. You’ve gotta understand that.’ I make a note.


The next morning, over a coffee, Sheila tells me that she has swung it for me to attend an ‘Administrative Review Board’ or ARB. This is a quasi-legal process conducted by the US military in order to ascertain if a detainee should be sent forward for court martial. A sort of pretrial hearing. The prisoner in question is ‘compliant’ but believed to be personally very close to Osama Bin Laden.

According to Captain Salsman, for ‘security reasons and in order to protect valuable intelligence sources’, detainees at Guantanamo, on average, only get to hear around 20 percent of the charges or allegations made against them. Again, I’m not inspired.

We enter the room where the ARB is to be held. ‘Hassan’ – the detainee in question – is seated beside an interpreter. He is a ‘compliant’ prisoner dressed in a tan uniform. Hassan is not his real name. I am directed by Sheila and Helen to use the alias ‘Hassan’ when writing about this detainee.

Though aged thirty-one, Hassan looks to be in his mid-twenties. He is of average height and of slight build. He is bearded with braided hair and is shackled at the ankles and wrists. He is attached by a chain to a metal ring that has been embedded in the floor. As we enter he tries to stand. The chain, however, is too short to allow him to stand fully upright. He loses his balance and, unable to move his arms or legs, falls heavily to one side.


An air force colonel seated next to him embraces him in an attempt to break his fall. He holds him in a bear-hug and lifts him back into his seat. It is an uncomfortable moment. Enemies held in an intimate embrace. The colonel in charge of the ARB asks him through the interpreter if he is OK and reassures him that it is not necessary to stand up.

The officers take an oath in English to discharge their duties to the best of their abilities. The detainee takes an Islamic oath in Arabic. The detainee is then asked through the interpreter if it is true that he attended a Saudi training camp in Pakistan where he learned to fire a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle. Hassan answers the panel in English and, looking directly at me, says, ‘Yes, I did – do I look like Rambo to you?’ Everyone, including the detainee, breaks into laughter.

‘I have told my interrogators time and time again, maybe six hundred times these things are not true.’ The chairman of the ARB assures the detainee that his observations will be noted ‘for the record’.

Addressing the Irish-American colonel who is chairing the ARB, he states in English, ‘You are a very senior officer and an educated man, you can see that I am not a threat to the USA, I am not a threat to anyone.’ Looking around at everyone in the room then and in a barely audible voice, Hassan states, ‘I just want to go home and see my daughter. I want to make a new life, a new start, be with my family.’ The board concludes its business.

On my last evening in GTMO, Sheila, Jim and Helen conduct the Security Review Panel. They scan my laptop and camera. All is acceptable it seems.

For my part, the least I can do for the detainees is to publish the on-the-record intention of the United States to execute prisoners. I am the first journalist to wring this admission from GTMO officials. I am also the first journalist to get the US military to admit openly to the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. I hope and trust that these admissions will hasten the demise of Camps Delta and Echo on Guantanamo Bay.

Tom Clonan served as an Irish Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. He is Security Analyst with the Irish Times, where he provides in-depth defence and military analysis of fast-moving international events. He also provides expert military and security analysis to RTÉ television and radio, and international broadcasters including the BBC and Sky News. His first book, Blood, Sweat and Tears, was published in 2012 by Liberties Press.


Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy written by Tom Clonan and is available to buy now in all good bookshops. The book is published by Liberties Press. You can also buy the book from the publishers website here.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist,

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