Metropolis: Wednesday, March 6, 2003
Prisonersby Definition

Attempts to send mail to detainees in the war on terrorism have hit a bureaucratic wall.


During my 20-plus years as a journalist, writing to people behind bars has somehow become my specialty. I’ve literally written thousands of letters to prisoners. Some of my letters have been answered, some haven’t. But the mail was always promptly delivered — whether it was to an inmate in a rural jail, a prisoner on one of the nation’s death rows, or a foreigner locked up in a federal prison by immigration officials.

Not this time, though. Not when the prisoners in question were the 600 or so “enemy combatants’’ being held by the U.S. government at an ultra-secure facility called Camp Delta on a military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In this case, as my University of North Texas classmates and I have found out, the government’s definitions of mail, “prisoners of war,” and even “tomorrow” apparently are not those of the average American.

The Defense Department has permitted reporters to prowl the perimeter of Camp Delta and to interview officials who work there but not to interview prisoners themselves. In fact, the Defense Department won’t even say who the prisoners are except to categorize them, in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as “among the most vicious killers on the face of the earth.”

What stories these prisoners might have to tell is anyone’s guess.

Last fall, 13 students at UNT’s Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism tried to pierce the dense fog of secrecy cloaking these prisoners by writing them letters. Trying to get mail delivered to Camp Delta, however, was a task easier said than done.

Since the first prisoners started arriving last year at Camp Delta and its predecessor Camp X-Ray, the Defense Department and the International Committee of the Red Cross claim on their web sites to have delivered more than 5,000 letters to and from the approximately 625 prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Some of those letters coming out of Camp Delta have made their way into newspapers around the world. Our class divvied up the world and scoured the Lexis/Nexis database for stories that mentioned the prisoners by name. We firmed up some identities in interviews with relatives, attorneys, embassy officials, and court records. Weeks of work yielded 54 names — prisoners the U.S. government still refuses to identify.

We wrote each prisoner a one-page letter requesting basic information about his capture and confinement and had the letters translated into Arabic. We left the envelopes containing our letters 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,” a typical letter stated. “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 first roadblock: We couldn’t find a mailing address for Camp Delta. So we decided to see whether two agencies that have publicized their delivery of thousands of pieces of mail to the prisoners would deliver 54 more.

On its web site, 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 when we asked the Red Cross to deliver our letters, Frank Sieverts, assistant to the International Committee of the Red Cross’ chief of delegation in Washington, D.C., told my classmate Gene Zipperlen that the agency can accept mail from families only. He suggested that we attempt delivery 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.

“We ensure the detainees are allowed to write and receive letters,” Army Reserve Master Sgt. Debra A. Tart was quoted as saying in an Armed Forces Press Service article last July. “The detainees are not limited to our service. They can also send and receive mail through the International Committee of the Red Cross.”

Our letters to the Defense Department wound up on the desk of Harold Heilsnis, the agency’s director for public inquiry and analysis in Washington. In an e-mail to Mayborn director F. Mitchell 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 tried repeatedly to contact Heilsnis during December and January but had no luck. In February, Land contacted Heilsnis’ boss — Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

“It has now been two months and we would like to know where things stand,” Land wrote. “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.”

Heilsnis responded on Feb. 4, saying again that 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.”

That was the last any of us heard from the Defense Department. Our class knew from the start we were working on a long shot and that our letters, if delivered, would be subject to much scrutiny. But no one expected it would be this difficult to get the military to respond.

“We appreciate the need for national security,” Land said, “but it seems to me the U.S. government would want to take the high road of openness whenever it can.”

We still don’t know whether our letters have been tossed in a dumpster, delivered to Cuba, or remain in a box on Heilsnis’ desk — just another Defense Department secret in the war on terror.

Heilsnis’ letter also stated that Camp Delta’s prisoners are being “treated humanely and consistent with the Geneva Convention.” Those international rules for warfare specifically state that “prisoners of war shall be allowed to send and receive letters and cards.’’ The Bush administration, however, appears to be relying on a Catch 22. Officials refused to categorize the detainees as “prisoners of war,” instead labeling them “enemy combatants.”

The 54 prisoners we identified came from 16 nations: Afghanistan, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Some of the Camp Delta prisoners have no doubt provided valuable intelligence to military officials. And many if not most of these prisoners may be guilty of plotting against America. But 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 two released prisoners as frail and confused old men. Agence France Press reported that another was a reporter with al Jazeera television, the so-called Arab CNN.

In interviews late last year, relatives and attorneys of prisoners also questioned the detentions. In a telephone interview from Germany, the family of Murat Kurnaz told my classmate Christina Koutalis that the 20-year-old 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. Our class was unable to corroborate her assertion.

Rabiye Kurnaz said her family had received mail from her son, but has heard nothing 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 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.”

In another interview by telephone, Mansour Kamel of Kuwait told grad student Jon O’Guinn that his brother Abdullah Kamel is disabled and lacks the ability to be a soldier or terrorist. “He has no fingers on his hands,” Mansour Kamel said.

Mansour Kamel said 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.

Indefinite detention and uncertainty are beginning to take their toll on the men at Camp Delta, 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, told UNT student Kathryn R. Clark that 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 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 visited 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.

“We have no complaints except maybe that they are still being detained,’’ Eriksson told my classmate Mark Saffold. “ It’s been ... a year now. They need either to prosecute them, send them home to be prosecuted, or release them.’’

This article is based on the reporting of 13 students in an advanced reporting class at the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas at Denton. In addition to the students cited in the article, Josh Baugh, Sonya Cole, Seth Gonzales, Kwami Koto, Molly McCullough, Carey Ostergard, and Nikela Pradier contributed to this report. Additionally, Gulden Wyatt of Dallas and student Maike Rode assisted in translations. A version of this article first appeared on the Mayborn’s web site (

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