Guantánamo's Last Days

America prepares to shutter the infamous prison camp, and more jihad looms.

Despite these tactics, little intelligence came from the prison camp, CIA sources told author Jane Mayer for her 2008 book, The Dark Side. So the CIA sent an intelligence analyst to Guantánamo. He interviewed about two dozen detainees and concluded that about a third of the camp's population had no connection to terrorism.

Mahvish Khan, then a young University of Miami law student, found something similar when she began visiting the camp as a translator. The child of Afghan immigrant parents who had gone on to become doctors, she had grown up in a conservative Muslim home in Michigan.

Khan says she expected to find members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Instead, the first detainee she met was a pediatrician who had worked to establish democracy in Afghanistan and then fled to Syria when the Taliban took over. The second man was an 80-year-old paraplegic who had been bedridden for 15 years. Bounty hunters had delivered both of them. "Most of the people were there because they were turned in for money, or because there was some sort of tribal feud," she says. "I saw UN workers, people who had built girls' schools, who had been prosecuted by the Taliban ... as well as businessmen who[m] debtors" had turned in.

Undated family photo of Omar Khadr, who is being detained by U.S. forces at Guantánamo Bay.
Photo courtesy of the Khadr family
Undated family photo of Omar Khadr, who is being detained by U.S. forces at Guantánamo Bay.
Army Col. Bruce Vargo, commander 
of detention camps at Guantánamo Bay, in an office inside Camp Delta.
Barry Bland
Army Col. Bruce Vargo, commander of detention camps at Guantánamo Bay, in an office inside Camp Delta.

In the summer of 2004, two years after Khadr's arrival, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration could not hold prisoners indefinitely without charging them. Detainees had the right to have their cases heard in federal court. In response, camp authorities quietly released 114 detainees by the end of the year. Virtually none had seen the evidence against them. In June 2006, the Supreme Court suspended the tribunals for three months until Congress officially authorized them.

For Khadr, nothing changed. He continually wrote letters home, promising his mother that Allah would protect them. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, his mother, dressed in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes, said she would be happy to see her son die a martyr. She also admitted that when the planes hit the World Trade Center, her first thought was, "Let them have it." As for the American medic Khadr reportedly killed with a grenade in 2002, Omar's sister Zaynab was unapologetic. "Big deal," she said with a shrug.


It's an early January morning at Guantánamo. Young soldiers with cropped hair jog along the streets in the gray light of dawn, their T-shirts drenched from the thick tropical air. As they run in single file, a car passes on the winding street, headed to the mess hall up the road. Classic rock broadcast from one of two military-controlled radio stations drifts from its window.

A few miles away, prisoners rise for morning prayer. They kneel and recite Koranic verses. Later, they wash their white uniforms and hang them on chain-link fences to dry.

Across the camp, Omar Khadr is slumped over a defense table in a convincing replica of a U.S. courtroom. He is no longer the frail, clean-shaven teenager who begged Army soldiers to kill him. He scratches a thick beard and rubs his left eye, blinded all those years ago by American shrapnel. His lanky, 6-foot-1-inch frame stretches a white prison uniform, and his face is slack with boredom.

For six and a half years, through torture and isolation, he has awaited his day in court. Next door to the multimillion-dollar courthouse hosting Khadr's hearing, a reporter watches the proceedings on a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall inside a double-wide trailer tucked into the corner of a cavernous, dusty hangar. It's as close as the Pentagon will allow the media.

A Navy lawyer finishes questioning an FBI agent just after 11 a.m., and the camera shifts to Army Col. Patrick Parrish, who is presiding in a judge's flowing black robes. "Because of the inauguration, then, we're going to recess for the rest of the day," he says. "We're going to reconvene tomorrow at 0900." He pauses and clears his throat. "Unless we're told otherwise by the commission."

In that instant, the TV set broadcasting Khadr's hearing flips to live coverage of President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Khadr's slumped figure is replaced by the black-robed figures of the U.S. Supreme Court, tromping down the stairs of the U.S. Capitol.

With George W. Bush sitting nearby, Obama repudiates what Guantánamo Bay has come to represent. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals," he says, setting in motion plans to close the camp within a year and throwing Khadr's case into limbo.

The next day, the brass at Guantánamo try to wrap their minds around what has happened. Army Col. Bruce Vargo — the detention camp's top commander — keeps an office inside a fluorescent-lit trailer in the heart of Camp Delta, where the best-behaved prisoners are held. An Ohio native with meaty, pinched features and a booming voice, he seems the perfect officer — in control and unflappable. "Look, we are responsible for the safe, humane, and transparent legal care and custody of these detainees," he says matter-of-factly. "That has not changed, all right?"

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