GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Interrogators can still collect useful information from Guantanamo Bay detainees, sometimes enticing them with fast food, movies and other privileges denied to the general prison population, the camp's top intelligence official said.
Interrogators seek to develop a rapport with detainees, most held at the prison for nearly five years without charges, as they try to uncover information about international terrorism, Paul Rester, director of the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantanamo Bay, said Tuesday.
Rester, who led interrogations at the prison in 2002 and returned last year to the base in southeast Cuba, said abusive techniques were not common practice.
"We know what the exceptions were, they're out there in the public domain, but as a rule there was never a whole lot of aggressive interrogation," he said in an interview at the base.
The U.S. says it now holds about 430 men on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda or the Taliban at Guantanamo Bay. Many prisoners have alleged through lawyers or to military review panels that they have been abused in American custody.
In the most recent allegation made public, a Marine paralegal said in October that she heard several guards at the base say they routinely hit detainees. The U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, is investigating the report.
Last year, military investigators, responding to complaints made by FBI agents assigned to Guantanamo, found that a detainee had been threatened with dogs, kept in solitary confinement for 160 days, and interrogated for 18 to 20 hours a day for 48 out of 54 days. The detainee, suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, was forced to wear a bra, ordered to dance with an interrogator and subjected to other forms of humiliation, investigators found.
Rester told The Associated Press that the treatment of the detainee was an "anomaly."
Lawyers for detainees who have occasional access to their clients to discuss legal strategy have also disputed whether prisoners can still provide valuable intelligence, saying it is simply a justification to continue holding them.
"It is not true that the government is getting useful information from the detainees in Guantanamo," said Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who represents two Tunisians at Guantanamo.
Rester said the military allows detainees to skip scheduled interrogation sessions — and as many as five opt out on a typical day.
Those who participate have the incentive of getting to leave their cells, where most detainees held at Guantanamo are confined for up to 22 hours a day, he said.
Those who cooperate have been allowed to eat sandwiches from a Subway restaurant on the base and watch movies and soccer games in the interrogation rooms. While detainees are typically allowed to keep only one book a week from the prison library, a letter from their interrogator can qualify them for a second, he said.
About one-third of the detainees are still interrogated, he said, and still offer details about the structure of terror networks and the terrain of countries where they operate.
"What we confront is human and it's dynamic, and knowledge does not in fact perish with time," he said. "The immediate knowledge begins to fade over time but associations and geography do not."
Rester, who began a career in military intelligence as an Army interrogator in Vietnam in 1971, said his experience has demonstrated that conversational questioning is the most effective method.
"There has been an effort from the very beginning to develop respect because your enemy's truth is not your truth, so you have to find a middle ground if you're going to have a long-term verbal relationship," he said.