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Rock Bands Got Backstage Tours at Gitmo Prison
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29/06/2010

S.I. Rosenbaum


(June 27) -- On a sweltering January afternoon in 2008, Kelly Keagy -- aging rock star, drummer for Night Ranger, the guy who belts MOTORINNN' on that one power anthem from the '80s -- found himself in the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
















He and his bandmates walked alongside a chain-link fence topped with rolls of razor wire. On the other side, a group of men in head-wraps and loose-fitting white clothes stood in a small yard paved in gravel. They were prisoners -- men designated "unlawful combatants" by the Bush administration and held without charges or trial.



The band's handlers wanted them to move along. But the rockers stopped to look at the men on the other side of the fence.



The men looked back.



"We made eye contact," Keagy recalled. It was shocking. Wow, he thought. This is a real thing. These people are real.



Then he thought, "These guys probably hate us. They want to kill us. That's why they're in there."



"It was weird," Keagy said. "It was a little tense."



Since 2002, more than 400 entertainers -- rock bands, rappers, celebrity chefs and cheerleaders -- have quietly visited Guantanamo Bay to perform for the troops stationed there. Nearly all of them have been treated to a tour of the base's most notorious attraction: the prison.



Members of the Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in an undated photograph.
JTF-GTMO-PAO

Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders pose with a U.S. service member in this undated photograph at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.



Some acts have even performed within earshot of the prison camp's walls, their music drifting over to the prisoner barracks.



That had to stop a few years ago, though, according to Craig Basel, the base's former Morale, Welfare and Recreation chief.



"The Joint Task Force was getting far too many questions from lawyers of detainees about the concerts," he said. "I guess it interrupted prayer time. It interrupted their sleep."



II.



A lifelong former Marine with broad shoulders and a love of rock 'n' roll, Basel was first stationed at Gitmo in 1993. Back then, before the prison, before the enemy combatants, before debates over habeas corpus and extreme interrogation techniques, Guantanamo was just a naval base, dating back to 1898 and the Spanish-American War.



For the most part, then and now, the base looks like a suburb in Arizona or Florida. There is a high school, a McDonald's, a KFC, a shopping center. There are streets with lawns and houses where people hold barbecues.



"It's just like real life," said Margot B., an R&B singer who performed there. "It doesn't even seem like you're on an army base at all."



A man sits in front of the convenience store where he works as a U.S. military trooper walks out at the U.S. Naval Base, 2009, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Brennan Linsley, Pool / Getty Images

A man sits in front of the convenience store where he works at the U.S. naval base in Guatanamo Bay, as a U.S. military trooper walks out.



In the late '90s, the base was home to a few thousand people, service personnel and their families. Then came 9/11. By 2002, the following year, the first 613 prisoners had arrived at Guantanamo. They were joined by thousands more sailors, airmen, soldiers and Marines, more than tripling the base's population.



That was the year Basel retired as a Marine and accepted a civilian position as Guantanamo's head of Morale, Welfare and Recreation. It was now his job to keep 11,000 people entertained.



To do so, he had a budget of $150,000 to $300,000 per year. He booked everyone from Jimmy Buffett to pro bass fishermen. If the troops requested a particular act, he'd try to get it, either by calling the agent directly or by going through an office in the Pentagon known as Armed Forces Entertainment.



Armed Forces Entertainment is the Department of Defense's official booking agency. It's run by the Air Force and got its start making travel arrangements for USO concerts. Now, though, its director, Air Force Col. Edward Shock, works full time with a staff of 10, organizing tours all over the world and scouting talent at festivals like South by Southwest.



Shock said it's rare for a musician to refuse an invitation to tour with Armed Forces Entertainment. The gig doesn't pay, but all expenses are taken care of: airfare, room and board. For most performers -- especially ones just starting out -- that's a pretty good deal. Bands can choose to go anywhere, from Baghdad to Berlin, but Guantanamo is always popular. Its proximity helps; the Caribbean climate doesn't hurt either.



III.



That was partly why Margot B. chose to go there. A Pittsburgh-based singer and former national Miss Black Teen winner who prefers to go by her stage name, she was offered an Armed Forces Entertainment tour in 2007 when she was a college freshman. Europe seemed too far away, Asia too volatile. So on her spring break, she boarded a tiny plane and flew to the base.



It was gorgeous, she recalled -- like a resort. A pair of servicemen were assigned to take her and her best girlfriend around. They spent the day boating and water-skiing. Then they took the prison tour.



Like other musicians who played Guantanamo, Margot remembers her guide first pointing out Camp X-Ray, the original site of the prison, now derelict.



"We saw all these tin houses that looked so run-down and broken-down," she said. "They were telling me, 'Margot, this is what the news reporters tape, this is what they show the world, that the terrorists are living in these run-down shacks. But really there's no one in there. They're completely abandoned.'"



Many who took the tour were told that the media was misrepresenting Guantanamo by broadcasting only footage of Camp X-Ray, which wasn't true: TV news stories at the time did still show b-roll from Camp X-Ray, but they also showed newer footage from Camp Delta, the $500 million, Halliburton-built facility that currently houses prisoners.



Camp Delta was the tour's next stop. Margot walked through empty rooms similar to the ones prisoners lived in. She was impressed with the amenities: cable TV, couches.



A detainee walks past a row of drying laundry at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 29 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
John Moore, Getty Images

A detainee walks past a row of drying laundry at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay on March 29.



As far as Margot sees it, the detainees "have an awesome lifestyle. You know, as good as it's going to get for a terrorist. There are little houses that are completely furnished. It's almost amazing to know that it's their jail. So some of the stuff you see on TV, that these terrorists are living these hard lives and they're being tied up or whatever, that's a bunch of bull."



That night she played for the troops working in the detainment zone. She stood on an outdoor stage, with the ocean behind her and the prison off to her right. It all might have been almost too heady. But she stopped thinking about the prison when the troops filed in. She played the soldiers "Redneck Woman." She played them "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." They loved it. They didn't want her to leave.



"If I had the choice, I'd go back every year," Margot B. said.



IV.



The prison tours were Basel's idea. He started them with one of the first performers who came to Guantanamo, country singer Charlie Daniels, taking him through Camp Delta while it was still under construction. One of the first groups to tour the completed prison was the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. From there, it evolved into a "really good tour," Basel said.



Mostly, he said, the tours were meant to ensure that troops working at the prison got a chance to get autographs and schmooze with semi-celebrities, too. But he also wanted to educate the performers, he said, some of whom arrived with mixed feelings about Guantanamo.



Basel was happy when the tour changed their minds.



"It was kind of refreshing to see them go back to the states and let people know what we were doing," he said. "It was nice to hear people say good things about Guantanamo."



V.



Tom Parker, Amnesty International's policy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights, said Basel's feelings are common among Guantanamo personnel.



"They feel victimized and misrepresented, ironically enough," he said. "I've talked to people there ... people want to think they're doing something important, something that is right."



In fact, Parker said, the VIP tours could be considered a violation of the Third Geneva Convention, Article 13 of which protects prisoners of war from exposure to "public curiosity"



Given the many other alleged Geneva violations at Guantanamo -- where, the Bush administration argued, the internationally recognized convention didn't apply -- this "wouldn't be our primary concern," Parker said dryly. "But it does speak to a general attitude toward the rights of the detainees in general. They shouldn't be a tourist attraction. ... I don't think anybody would enjoy being treated like an animal in a zoo." (Parker allows that he might make an exception, however, for one group of prison camp visitors. "Maybe I'd be open-minded about the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. There isn't a whole hell of a lot to do in Guantanamo.")



Basel said it never occurred to him that the tours might be against the Geneva Conventions. "I never got involved with the legalese or political issues concerning taking people through the camp," he said. "I left that up to the lawyers within the JTF, and I'm sure they went through all the legal stuff to do it correctly."



In any case, Parker argued, the tours undermine the Bush administration's portrayal of the Guantanamo prisoners as "the worst of the worst."



"You cannot on the one hand say these people are so dangerous that they ... have to be blindfolded and shackled," he said, "and then say it's perfectly fine for cheerleaders to visit them."



Parker said he's not aware of prisoner complaints about noise from nearby concerts. But he pointed out that in October, a group of musicians together with a Washington historical archive filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the "Gitmo Playlist" -- a list of songs alleged to have been used in psychological torture.



Based on accounts from former prisoners, bands alleged to be on the playlist include Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine and the heavy-metal band Drowning Pool.



Drowning Pool's drummer, Mike Luce, said that while the band had not joined the lawsuit, he was shocked by the report about how their music had been used.



"If you write a song, you never in your wildest dreams think someone is going to use that song to inflict pain on another human being," he said. "No rational, sane human being would ever think of that."



Nonetheless, when Armed Forces Entertainment called, Drowning Pool accepted the invitation to go to Guantanamo in May 2009 to play for the troops. The apparent irony did not faze them.



"Those guys just wanted to see some rock 'n' roll," Luce said. "I mean, come on. Nobody's solving the world's problems here."



VI.



Of the 779 men who have been detained at Guantanamo, only three have been convicted of crimes. More than half have been determined innocent and released, often after years of delays. Many have alleged that they were subjected to cruel treatment at the camp; the International Committee of the Red Cross, FBI agents, the Senate Armed Services Committee and others have reported incidents of force-feeding, stress positions, sleep deprivation and psychological abuse.



Like other performers, John Stringer, lead singer for the Atlanta-based band State of Man, had heard the allegations of prisoner mistreatment at the base.



Members of the band State of Man perform in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in an undated photograph.
Courtesy PolyPlat Records

Members of the band State of Man -- including John Stringer (lead singer), Thomas Panza (guitarist) and James Beale (bass player) -- perform in Guantanamo Bay.




But even if those allegations were true, he said, it was all the more reason to play there.



"It would make me feel like we were needed there even more," Stringer said. "If there was a wrongdoing and we were playing for those people [who committed it], I would feel like we had done something to help them out, to help see things differently. They would need it probably more than anyone else."



State of Man is a roots rock band with a social-justice, civic-minded agenda; they make a point of performing some community service in every city they tour. In Guantanamo, they played for prison personnel "a baseball throw" away from the prison barracks, Stringer said.



Halfway through the set, the electricity cut out -- a not-uncommon occurrence on the base.



Stringer looked up and saw the stars glowing above him, the Milky Way spread out across the sky. The stars were so bright that he could see the faces of the troops, still patiently waiting for music. He and his bandmates grabbed acoustic instruments and kept playing, walking among the troops, playing "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," "No Woman No Cry." The troops sang along.



"I think music brings the reality we can all get behind and relate to and are touched by, the themes of love and the themes of forgiveness," Stringer said.



"Had the prisoners been able to hear some of that, I would have been pleased. Maybe some of that would have gotten through."



VII.



Craig Basel retired this winter. Back stateside, living in Forsythe, Ga., he said he misses life at the base.



"I miss being an MWR guy, taking care of the troops," he said. "I miss that every day."



He said he's been following the news as the Obama administration prepares to shut down the prison, but not closely. He didn't know, for example, how many detainees had been released, or how many remain. He didn't know where they came from, or where they went when they left.



"I don't think I've ever heard anything that would make me second-guess what they're doing out there," he said. "From what I know of it, it was always professionally run."



Basel's successor, Tara Culbertson, said she was "not aware" of any prison tours for performers, either in the past or in the future. She continues to book bands, however.



Right now, she's setting up concerts for the summer.


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