The officials who control what the world knows about prisoners in the war on terror make writing to them sound routine and simple. The Defense Department and the International Committee of the Red Cross say they have delivered more than 5,000 letters to and from the approximately 625 "enemy combatants" being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Yet when a group of graduate students at the University of North Texas in Denton wrote letters to 54 of those prisoners, the Red Cross and the Defense Department both refused -- at least thus far -- to deliver their mail. The letters, which sought basic information about the prisoners for a news article, were part of an advanced reporting class project at the university's Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism.
In keeping with the secrecy surrounding much of the war on terror, the Defense Department has not identified any of the prisoners who have been held and interrogated at Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta. Military officials say only that the prisoners, most of whom were initially detained in Afghanistan, are "enemy combatants" linked either to the Taliban, the former religious leadership in Afghanistan, or to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorism organization.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has told reporters that the prisoners are "among the most vicious killers on the face of the earth."
UNT graduate journalism students identified 54 of those prisoners by name and nationality from international news accounts, court records, and interviews with families, lawyers and embassy officials in more than a dozen nations.
The students then wrote each prisoner a one-page letter and sent all the letters to the Red Cross and the Defense Department, asking them to deliver the mail. The letters, which were written in English and translated into Arabic, requested basic information about the prisoners. The envelopes addressed to the detainees were left unsealed so their contents could be inspected.
"You are receiving this letter because we want to know the facts surrounding your capture, detention and life at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," the letters said. "We would be interested to know what you were doing when apprehended by U.S. forces, what your daily life is like in Camp Delta, and what your hopes for the future are. We would like to know your views about the United States and Al Qaeda."
The Red Cross says it has delivered 3,300 personal letters to and from the prisoners and their relatives during the last year -- "a precious link," the organization says, to the outside world. But the Red Cross refused to deliver letters to the prisoners the students had identified.
Frank Sieverts, assistant to the International Committee of the Red Cross' chief of delegation in Washington, D.C., said Oct. 29 that the agency can accept mail from families only. He suggested that the students attempt delivery of the letters through the military.
The Defense Department operates an independent mail delivery system for the prisoners. Military officials said in July that they had delivered an additional 1,900 pieces of mail. More recent figures are not available.
"We ensure the detainees are allowed to write and receive letters," Army Reserve Master Sgt. Debra A. Tart is quoted as saying in an Armed Forces Press Service article dated July 23, 2002.
"The detainees are not limited to our service. They can also send and receive mail through the International Committee of the Red Cross."
The Defense Department has had the students' letters to the prisoners for more than three months but has not said whether they will be delivered. The letters were initially sent in November to Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in Washington. Clarke's office said she forwarded the package to Harold Heilsnis, the department's director for public inquiry and analysis.
In an e-mail to Land, Heilsnis said he would "contact my colleagues at the U.S. Southern Command to discuss the potential delivery that you seek. I will then be back in touch with you as soon as possible after that."
Heilsnis' e-mail was dated Nov. 25, 2002. Land made repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact Heilsnis during December and January. In February, Land again contacted Clarke and inquired about the letters.
"We have heard nothing. It has now been two months and we would like to know where things stand," Land wrote in a letter. "All we are asking the Department of Defense to do is deliver the mail -- just as the Department has done hundreds if not thousands of times for others."
On Feb. 4, Heilsnis again said he would check with "my colleagues at U.S. Southern Command regarding your specific request. I should have an answer by tomorrow and will convey that to you." Neither Land nor the students in the journalism class have heard anything more.
Heilsnis' letter also reiterated the department's unwillingness to release information about the prisoners. "It is our policy that, due to operational security considerations, we will not provide specific information on any individuals detained in our ongoing war on terrorism," Heilsnis wrote. "President Bush has established that all detainees in control of the United States will be treated humanely and consistent with the Geneva Convention." He further quoted Rumsfeld's assurance that "the treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay is proper, it's humane, it's appropriate and it's fully consistent with international conventions."
The Geneva Conventions establish international rules governing, among other aspects of battle, the treatment of prisoners of war. Article 71 states, "Prisoners of war shall be allowed to send and receive letters and cards."
Although the Bush administration says Camp Delta prisoners are being treated "consistent with the Geneva Convention," administration officials have refused to categorize the detainees as "prisoners of war," instead labeling them "enemy combatants," a designation that the international accord does not address.
The 54 prisoners identified by the class come from 16 nations: Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Tajikistan and Turkey.
Some of the men detained at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay have provided intelligence material that has been of "enormous value" to U.S. military officials, according to an Armed Forces Press Service report last month. Many prisoners identified by the students, according to published reports, have operated or trained in bin Laden's camps or have other ties to terrorism.
In recent months, however, questions have been raised about whether all the prisoners at Camp Delta are as dangerous as the government says. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that dozens of prisoners "have no meaningful connection" to terrorism and were imprisoned "over the objections of intelligence officers in Afghanistan who had recommended them for release."
The Associated Press described one released prisoner, who claimed to be 105, as a "shriveled old man ... unable to answer simple questions," and a second, who claimed to be 90, as a "wizened old man with a cane." Yet another prisoner, according to Agence France-Press, a French news agency, is a reporter with al Jazeera television, the so-called Arab CNN.
In interviews with students late last year, some of the prisoners' relatives and attorneys also raised questions about the detentions.
The family of Murat Kurnaz, for example, said in a telephone interview from Germany that the 20-year-old detainee is a devout Muslim with no military training who traveled to Pakistan solely to study the Quran. Rabiye Kurnaz said through a translator that her son had been in Pakistan for two months and was trying to return when U.S. forces detained him.
"He was asked for more money when he wanted to buy his ticket. Since he had no money, he was sold to Americans," she said. The students were unable to corroborate her assertion.
Rabiye Kurnaz said her family had received three letters and two postcards but had heard nothing from her son since June. She said she had seen photographs of him, however, "with his hands tied, tape on mouth, kneeling and eyes isolated." She said she had been told that the interrogation of her son could be lengthy and that "the procedures could last a couple of years."
Bernhard Docke, Murat Kurnaz's attorney in Germany, said his client had wanted to join the Taliban but, for reasons that are unclear, could not. "German investigators found no links between Murat and the Taliban," Docke said. "Murat hoped to get involved with the Taliban but he didn't manage to. He was a wannabe."
A relative of a Kuwaiti prisoner also raised questions about why his brother has been detained. In a telephone interview from Kuwait, Mansour Kamel said his brother Abdullah Kamel is disabled and lacks the ability to be a soldier. He said he last heard from his brother, one of a dozen Kuwaitis being detained, in August.
"He can't be a terrorist," Mansour Kamel said. "He can't even use his hands. He has no fingers on his hands. He was injured by a booby trap during the Persian Gulf War. I have the papers to prove that the Kuwait government excused him from military service because of his handicap. I have pictures of his hands."
Mansour Kamel says he's confident that his brother will be absolved of any connection with terrorism -- if only the United States will allow an outside review of his case. "I'm not asking for my brother's release, just for his case to be heard in court," he said. "They will see what he has told them is the truth."
The future for Abdullah Kamel and Murat Kurnaz, like that of more than 600 other men at Camp Delta, remains uncertain. Indefinite detention and uncertainty are beginning to take their toll, according to news reports. More than a dozen prisoners have attempted suicide so far.
Steven Watt, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in Washington, said he "expects the detainees to be held for the duration of the hostilities" -- and Bush administration officials have said the war on terror may last for years. The rights center, which represents four Camp Delta detainees, has been waging a thus far losing legal battle to have the "enemy combatants" reclassified as prisoners of war.
Bo Eriksson is a Swedish Embassy official who has been to Guantanamo Bay and has spoken with his country's only Camp Delta prisoner, Mehdi-Mohammad Ghezali. He declined to reveal details of his conversation with Ghezali but said he believes that the prisoners should not be held indefinitely without being charged.
"They are well-fed and well-looked-after generally," Eriksson said in a telephone interview. "We have no complaints except maybe that they are still being detained. It's been ... a year now. They need either to prosecute them, send them home to be prosecuted or release them."
Kurnaz has written several cards to his family through the Red Cross. In one dated March 2, 2002, he expressed his uncertainty about the future. "I am fine with God's protection, but I don't know when I am going to return," he said in a note written in Turkish and translated for the students into English. "God knows best, and whatever he says, will happen to us."
This article is based on information gathered by an advanced reporting class at the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas in Denton. F. Mitchell Land, Ph.D., the professor of record for the class, oversaw the project, which was directed by graduate students Dan Malone and Gene Zipperlen.
Other students who contributed to this report are Joshua Baugh, Kathryn R. Clark, Sonya Cole, Seth Gonzales, Kwami Koto, Christina Koutalis, Molly McCullough, Jon O'Guinn, Carey Ostergard, Nikela Pradier and Mark Saffold.
Graduate student Maike Rode and Gulden Wyatt were translators.
Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism