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Book Looks at Treatment of Guantanamo Prisoners

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Afghanistan, US troops today opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Jalalabad. They killed four people. This was during protests, the worst anti-American demonstrations since the overthrow of the Taliban nearly four years ago. These protesters were angry about reports of conditions in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where many Afghani detainees are held. Newsweek magazine reports American interrogators there flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet to humiliate Muslim detainees.

It's often hard to determine the truth of what happens at Guantanamo; the base is isolated. But a book out this week highlights what the author says are deep flaws in the system there. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Erik Saar describes his book "Inside the Wire" as one soldier's account of the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 30-year-old Saar is a former Army sergeant and an Arabic linguist. In late 2002, he volunteered to do a six-month stint at Guantanamo. Saar thought he would be part of a cutting-edge operation in the war on terrorism, but within weeks after his arrival, disillusionment set in. Saar writes that he became disturbed by much of what he saw, including the often-brutal treatment of detainees and a lack of training for soldiers dealing with the prisoners. Saar says that while there were some detainees that should never be released, over the months he developed a sinking feeling that many of those being held were not ardent jihadists.

Mr. ERIK SAAR (Author, "Inside the Wire"): In my experience, I do think there were a significant number of detainees that did not have information. I mean, they were not the worst of the worst, as we have been told. They were not individuals who had extensive training with al-Qaeda. But, really, what did it for me was when I saw some of the intelligence that was saying, `We don't know why this guy is here,' or, `This guy hasn't talked to an interrogator in three or four months.'

NORTHAM: Saar says many detainees made suicide attempts and suffered mental deterioration at their open-ended detentions and that the psychiatric staff made only cursory attempts to help them. Saar says he was also bothered that the hundreds of detainees were labeled enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war and that the administration deemed they were not covered under the Geneva Conventions because they didn't have a command structure or follow the rules of law. Saar describes one morning when the interrogation teams were called to attend a PowerPoint presentation.

Mr. SAAR: The military usually didn't explain things to lower-ranking soldiers like myself, so it did seem almost a defense--it was defensive, in a sense, that they were saying, `Look, we know that you know that we're not following the Geneva Conventions here and that--and that we're going to attempt to treat the detainees humanely. But these are now termed enemy combatants, not prisoners of war, but here's why.' And the explanation just didn't seem to hold up to me.

NORTHAM: But Saar says that determination likely contributed to some of the harsh or questionable techniques used by interrogators to get information, including one incident where a female interrogator smeared red ink on a Saudi detainee's face, letting him think it was menstrual blood. Saar says it was to make the prisoner feel impure in an effort to drive a wedge between him and his faith.

The book also describes how some interrogations were carefully stage-managed for visiting dignitaries. Saar writes, `A facade would go up, like a set in an old movie.' He says the staff would carefully choose a cooperative detainee, and then he and an interrogator would simply repeat material they covered earlier. Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, says he was part of a congressional delegation to Guantanamo last year and watched an interrogation.

Representative ADAM SCHIFF (Democrat, California): We had some access to what was being asked but very limited and filtered through the people that were giving us the tour. And, of course, whenever you go and you visit a site like this, you're aware of the fact that you're seeing what your hosts want you to see. So you have to take it with a certain grain of salt, but you also expect those that are showing you around to be operating in good faith.

NORTHAM: Schiff has requested that the House Judiciary Committee conduct a thorough inquiry.

In a written response to an NPR query, military officials say that the interrogations were not staged but that it has rescheduled some interrogations to make sure one took place while VIPs were on the base and that it's not unusual that a detainee would be asked repetitive questions. Saar says that's counterproductive.

Mr. SAAR: It was frustrating to me because it undermines everything the intelligence community tries to do, which is essentially provide accurate information to policy-makers so they can make decisions.

NORTHAM: Saar says he thinks the leadership at Guantanamo was under enormous pressure to justify the existence of the camp and needed to show they were getting good intelligence from the prisoners.

Walter Huffman is the dean of Texas Tech Law School and a former judge advocate general of the Army. He says if Saar had concerns, he should have followed a well-laid-out military procedure.

Mr. WALTER HUFFMAN (Dean, Texas Tech Law School): He has commented on specific instances in which he believed there were improper behaviors and improper procedures. And what he should have done as a soldier is use the chain of command to stop the improper activity, not let it go forward and then report on it later for profit.

NORTHAM: But Saar defends his decision and his book, saying it's a counterbalance to the administration's claims that Guantanamo Bay is a well-run operation producing plenty of good intelligence. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.