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Vargo won't talk about conditions prior to his 2007 arrival, but it is obvious that much has changed since the early days at Camp X-Ray. Today, detainees live in sterile, modern prison cells that look like maximum-security units in places such as Leavenworth, Kansas; and Florence, Colorado. Inside Camp 6 — the highest-security location other than Camp 7, which is in a secret on-base location that is off-limits to journalists — guards proudly display spartan cells with shatter-proof mirrors and collapsible "suicide-proof" clothing hooks.
Most guards are active-duty soldiers and sailors on two-year assignments. Some of them guide journalists, and censor pictures if a snapshot is taken of an empty guard tower or the fence line. Every photo is reviewed and deleted if deemed improper.
Senior Chief Jodi Myers, a perky, well-spoken 41-year-old from Pennsylvania, says prisoners quickly learned of the president's order to close the camp from their lawyers and word-of-mouth. "They know what's going on; they know the dates and stuff like that," she says, surrounded by empty cells in the common area of an unused block. "The guards maintain a very professional attitude, so we never give [detainees] any information. But they get to read the newspaper."
Jeff MacRay, a heavy-set 32-year-old guard from Michigan, says the prisoners are tough to deal with, but uncertainty over the camp's future and the widespread hatred of Guantánamo back home are worse. "It's a difficult occupation," he says softly. "Sometimes things get misconstrued, and it's frustrating."
Cultural advisers now teach guards about Ramadan, fasting, and the importance of daily prayers to Mecca. For inmates, there are art classes, a couple of hours of daily rec time, specially prepared halal meals, and a library with more than 14,000 books in 22 languages. "We take great pains to respect the religion of these men," Vargo says. "Five times a day they get prayer calls, we have respect for their Korans, we have respect for their communal rules. We've ... been continuously working to mature our camps."
The way Vargo sees it, what has been lost in all the handwringing over the treatment of the detainees is why these men are here. He insists no one has been tortured on his watch, and disputes the idea that holding them without charges is against international standards — because they're "prisoners of war."
"These guys are bombmakers, forgers, leaders," he says. "You know the list of who is in here, you know the type of acts they've done, so you know what that says about them. What they will be like in the future, I suppose is up to them. I'd say bombmakers are pretty dangerous people."
Later that day, in a double-wide trailer across camp, a translator named Zak offers a different perspective. A Jordanian in his 50s, he has a prominent nose, light skin, and salt-and-pepper hair. Before moving to Guantánamo in September 2005, he lived in Baghdad, where he risked his life to work as a translator for the U.S. officials who decided which Iraqis to imprison and release.
For the past three years, he has been a "cultural adviser," which means he deals with prisoners as well as Guantánamo's commanders. He says the detainees want to know the crimes they're charged with. Are they defendants or war criminals? "You know, it's not important to the detainees whether this place stays open or not," he says. "They're not saying, 'I'm innocent,' or 'I'm guilty.' They're saying, 'Define me. Define me. What are they going to do — keep me in jail another ten years? Another five years? Go on, go on,'" he says, his voice rising, "'go on and do something!'"
Toward the end of the day, we visit Camp 5, where Omar Khadr was moved in 2006. Dusty treadmills and half-inflated soccer balls litter the rec yard. Noticing a reporter, a dark-skinned man rushes to his cell window and frantically swings a white bath towel. Though a guard in a polo shirt instructs photographers to ignore the man, they walk close enough to see that he has pushed two snapshots against the glass. In the first photo, four children surround a man and woman. In another, a couple hugs and looks at the camera.
The inmate bears no resemblance to the man in the photos. He appears desperate or insane, with a wild beard and a shock of black hair. He gazes out with a crazed stare, and the message is obvious: Look at these pictures. This is my family. Tell them I'm alive.
The pantomime continues for five minutes, and when the reporters turn to leave, he waves his towel once more, looks them directly in the eye, and gives a thumbs up.
Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the release of seven and a half hours of previously classified video footage documenting Omar Khadr's interrogations at Guantánamo in 2003. It is blurry and of poor quality; at times it is difficult to make out any of the prisoner's features. At one point, becoming agitated with his interrogator, Khadr lifts his shirt to show the wounds U.S. troops inflicted during the firefight.