At a time when stories and rumors about the treatment of detainees captured in the global War on terror dominate the headlines, it's important to separate facts from sensationalist fictions. I had a chance to do just that on a recent trip to Iraq when I got an inside look at our detention and interrogation facility at our huge military base Camp Cropper near the airport in Baghdad.
The good (and completely unsurprising) news is this: the men and women of our military detention unit in Baghdad treat Iraqi detainees with the highest standards of professionalism and human decency. But perhaps the standards are even toohigh; there is a war on after all.
Our Baghdad detention facility holds security detainees (mostly suspected terrorists) and is operated by the United States Army. It currently holds about 2,000 detainees--Saddam Hussein was detained there after his capture. From accounts in the news media, you might think we detain suspected terrorists in dank cells and accord them cruel treatment. But instead of a series of "torture chambers" that would horrify Stephen King, I saw pleasant interrogation facilities that would make your grandmother feel comfortable.
The detainees are treated very gently -- some of the interrogation rooms even have soft couches and artificial flowers. Detainees may be offered soft drinks and biscuits during their interrogation. Treating detainees gently during interrogation is, of course, an interrogation technique in itself--to encourage the less hard-bitten ones to talk. And some claim that this gentle treatment prevents us from making more terrorists in our detention facilities.
But detainees quickly learn that they have nothing to fear from the Americans -- unlike their counterparts in Saddam's Iraq or other countries in the region today. And our interrogators may find it difficult to extract information if the detainees themselves are aware that the interrogators' only tool is gentle treatment. And when the facility is handed over the Iraqis in the near future, surely the gentle policies will leave with the Americans.
The rights given to detainees at our Baghdad detention facility are specific, extensive and clearly spelled out to the detainees themselves. Detainees receive a medical exam before every interrogation and another when it is finished. There is an officer present for each interrogation and observers watch through a two-way mirror. All interrogations are recorded and reviewed.
Camp Cropper reminds me of a community college, with the detainees able to take English lessons, receive job training, and engage in sports and games. Cell blocks elect their leaders -- kind of like student government. Detainees are even entitled to receive cigarettes after every meal. Some might call that torture, of a kind -- and you can't do that in America!
And as Congress debates universal health care, the detainees in Iraq receive medical care that would be the envy of most of the world -- and the uninsured in America. The detainees receive the same medical care that our troops receive, including dental and vision care, all free and on demand. In fact, the doctors, treatments, and high-tech equipment are the same for our soldiers and for suspected terrorists. That's unprecedented in wartime -- and America is still at war.
Many detainees from poor backgrounds have never had access to medical or dental care in their lives. Some families have even asked our military to keep holding their sons until they can complete their free medical and dental treatments.
A dental plan for terrorists? Is America going soft? I am reminded of Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men," when he says, "You can't handle the truth." The American people may say they want the truth -- but they just can't handle the truth about war anymore and what it takes to win a war, and I think it will get us in a heap of trouble.
There's a military custom of posts and units issuing souvenir coins to give to visitors. Camp Cropper's is instructive and sums up the whole philosophy behind detainee operations. At the edge of the coin, around a montage of the Iraqi and U.S flags, appear these words: "Respect," "Care," "Custody," "Dignity," and, at the bottom, "Return with Honor."
Make no mistake -- our soldiers in the detention unit at Camp Cropper have a job to do, and they do it professionally. Now it's up to the brass and the politicians to be sure they have all the tools they need as they play their important part in protecting America.
It's no joking matter that our current political leaders have severely limited the tools that our military and the CIA can use to obtain valuable information from suspected (or actual) terrorists and protect our nation. We need effective interrogation tools to protect Americans and others around the world, such as the citizens of London, Madrid, Mumbai, Istanbul, and Jakarta who have suffered so much from terrorist attacks.
America should think twice before we let politicians sitting in Washington hamper our military interrogators and the CIA so severely in war zones. It's past time to have a real debate on these issues, void of sensationalism and partisan attacks, and to ask: How do we best protect our country?
Mallory Factor is the co-chairman and co-founder of the Monday Meeting, an influential meeting of economic conservatives, journalists and corporate leaders in New York City. Mr. Factor is a well-known merchant banker and speaks and writes frequently on economic and fiscal topics for news stations, leading newspapers and other print and online publications.