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The former soldier has kicked off a tour of Britain this week to talk about the techniques used by US interrogators and express his regret over the handling of inmates at the controversial detention camp, which Barack Obama has promised to close on taking office.
Chris Arendt, from Michigan, joined the army shortly after September 11, aged 17, and was sent to work as a guard in Guantánamo two years later, in 2003. After becoming disillusioned with what he saw there, he left the army and joined the campaign group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "It was like sitting down with a bunch of brothers," said Arendt about meeting a dozen former inmates in London yesterday. "It was really natural, a really organic fit." He said he was held in immigration for seven hours before being allowed to enter Britain as officials were suspicious that he might try to settle in the UK.
As a guest of the human rights group Cageprisoners, Arendt is to address 21 public meetings, including events in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool, alongside former detainees.
Although a lawyer warned Arendt that he could be charged with treason, the former guard said he did not believe the US government would pursue him through the courts because Guantánamo had become so discredited.
"I've stayed off the grid since I started speaking out," he said. "I'm constantly changing my cell phone number."
Arendt said he felt compelled to speak out about the treatment of prisoners at the camp. Among techniques used to disorientate prisoners were "frequent flyer" programmes, whereby detainees would be moved from their cell every hour, night and day. The process was a lengthy one, he said, because of the "three-piece suits" the prisoners wore: three sets of shackles around their hands, waist and ankles.
Although he described some of his fellow guards as "psychotic", he added: "A lot of guys are not bad people; just regular guys – working class – doing their job, but what was definitely a minority saw it as a chance to go free-range and hog-wild about their fantasy of killing a 'raghead'. A lot of them wanted combat and were frustrated that they weren't in Iraq, so they made the environment as violent as they could."
Prisoners were shackled to the floors of their cells while loud music was blasted at them for hours, he added. "All I knew about Guantánamo Bay when I first went there was that there were iguanas and banana rats – they're gigantic – and there would be jet-skiing and scuba diving."
Arendt said he began to talk to inmates to learn about their lives. This was regarded as "fraternising with the enemy" and he was moved to different duties.
One former detainee, Tarek, with whom he has been reunited in England, he remembered instantly. "I'm never going to forget his face, I probably could have drawn it," Arendt said.
He recalled they had an argument over the number of sheets of toilet paper inmates were permitted.
The two have since got to know each other, Arendt said, adding: "It's been really cool having this dialogue." He said talking now about what had happened in the camp was hard: "I've had to admit a lot about my behaviour and I'm sick of hearing my own voice."
Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo detainee who is travelling with Arendt, said the experience of being reunited with a former guard had been "truly unique ... We embraced like brothers, like we knew one another." He said that while the public had become familiar with the experiences of detainees, the guards' stories were barely known.
The issue now, said Begg, was what was happening to the 250 or so remaining Guantánamo inmates. About 50 of them have been cleared by US authorities but there are no countries willing to take them. Begg said of all the European nations asked to accept former inmates, only Albania, which has so far allowed five to enter, had opened its doors. "The other countries need to put their money where their mouth is," he added.