A Student’s Perspectives on the USS Cole Trial- Kristi McMains- May 28, 2014 (Part 1)

I started today with a feeling of excitement and nervousness. After communicating with the other MCOP participants, I realized that I would be the only representative from IU McKinney at the hearing today. What a responsibility! At the end of the day, I also realized that the judge had cleared his docket for the week. In other words, today was the only day this week that hearings were going to be held that were not classified.

I have decided to split up my post for today in two separate posts: one with my personal observations and unique experiences, and a second post that deals with the substantive legal issues that were covered in the hearing.

I have never been on an active military base, and had no idea what to expect. My taxi driver told me that it sometimes takes awhile to get cleared to access the base, especially with persons who enter by taxi. When we pulled up to the gate, my driver had to turn off the engine, open all the doors, and show both his license and mine to the guards. After a thorough inspection, I was allowed to come in. Success! 

I pulled up to the Post Theatre, and came into the darkened room only to notice that I was the only participant present. I am the typical type A law student, so I made sure that I was over thirty minutes early, which gave me plenty of time to get settled and prepare for the day. The individuals overlooking the observation informed me that no cellphones, laptops, iPads, or anything else capable of recording is allowed into the theatre. For some reason, I had not anticipated this and slightly panicked because, as a law student hooked on electronics, I was intending on taking notes of the trial on my iPad the entire time. Thankfully, one of the leaders had an extra pad of paper. We have her to thank for my reporting to you all!

I was informed that they had received word that the trial was going to be closed until 10am, meaning that there would be no streaming due to the sensitive nature of the material being heard. Fortunately, the leaders streamed Good Morning America, so I was able to watch Matt Lauer and friends while I was waiting for the trial to begin.

Around 10:45am, Judge Pole appeared on our screen and the hearing was called to order. Before hearing any substantive legal issues, Judge Pole informed Al-Nashiri of his rights as a defendant, such as the right to appear at any and all trials he wished to observe and, at the same time, choose to not appear at any of the hearings without any prejudice towards his case.

I was struck when I first saw Al-Nashiri. I do not know what I was consciously or subconsciously expecting to observe, but I was surprised to notice that he looked like an average man that you would see walking down any street in New York or Indianapolis. When you search for images of Al-Nashiri, the man that appears looks very different than the man that I saw today. Today, Al-Nashiri was dressed all in white and was clean shaven with a full head of dark hair. He looked younger than I expected; I found myself stunned at the idea of him planning this horrific terror attack at such a young age. To be frank, I almost forgot that the hearing I was witnessing was one that was so crucial to national security. It wasn’t until the defense counsel referred to his client as “a potential terrorist and a potential member of Al Qaeda” that I was thrust back into the reality that I was watching a hearing relating to the prosecution of a man accused of acts of terror against our US military and who is an alleged member of the most infamous terrorist group in the world. Al Nashiri was leaning back in his chair, yawning, and looking sort of nonchalant about what was happening around him. It was not the reaction that I would have expected from a man who was on trial for his life.

One thing that I can say with 100% certainty is that these men, men who are accused of war crimes that are heinous to the average citizen, are receiving their right of zealous advocacy through effective counsel. The attorneys for Al Nashiri argued just as efficiently and effectively as they would for any other client. I found myself wondering if I would be able to do the same if I were placed in their shoes. The lawyer in me wants to scream a resounding “Yes”, that I would be able to respect the legal system and the rights of these individuals to have a fair trial that adequately and fully provides them the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty. On the other hand, there is a part of me that wonders if my advocacy would be hindered in any way because of the pre-conceived notions that are inherent in a case of this political magnitude. It was apparent from my observation today that equality, fairness, and justice were not only sought, but achieved in this military commission.

There were only a few other people in Post Theatre with me observing this hearing. I spoke with two individuals, one from the ACLU and another from the Human Rights Campaign and both of these individuals have had prior experiences observing military commissions and they had both been to Guantanamo multiple times. They were each so nonchalant about their travels that it blew my mind. I wanted to hear all about their experiences, but they were insistent that it was just like any other business trip. I’m hoping James can shine some light on this- I would be ecstatic to have any opportunity to travel to Guantanamo Bay and be in the location where some of these military commissions that are so crucial to our nation’s security occur. I’m not sure it would be an experience that I could ever see as ordinary.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with the ACLU representative for lunch. I thought that lunch was going to be brought into the theatre, but instead we were dismissed for an hour an a half to do whatever we liked. We ended by stopping by a weekly farmer’s market on base and stopping at a Subway. The lunch area reminded me of a mall food court with many different types of food and stores shoved into a small area.

The rest of the afternoon flew by. The other observers knew the docket schedule and were surprised at how quickly Judge Pole and the attorneys were going through the motions that were contested. When we ended around 4:30pm, Judge Pole announced that the rest of the hearings would be classified and therefore closed to the public. Today was the only hearing that was available for streaming. It was a bummer for our other MCOP members who were either en route to the base or already in Maryland. Despite their travels, they were unable to view any part of the hearing. 

As I was waiting for Whitney, a fellow MCOP participant, I called my father to tell him about the day and what I had observed. I have always lived life with a “No guts, no glory” attitude, and as a result have been able to meet people and have experiences that I would not have been able to have if I hadn’t had the courage to ask. I told my dad that it was unfortunate that I was only going to be on the base for one day and had not had a sufficient chance to explore what else it has to offer. He suggested, perhaps in a joking manner, that I should find the Commander of the entire base and ask for a tour. I just happened to be standing across from the Garrison Headquarters, where the Commander and Command Sergeant Major’s offices are located. I meandered over to their offices and walked up the steps of the grand building. I confidently walked through the front door only to come to a stop with a “Oh no, I’m not supposed to be here” moment. I immediately turned to walk right back out the door when I bumped into two very important looking men.

It is not everyday that you casually bump into the Commander and Command Sergeant Major of an active military base, but that is exactly what happened to me. I recognized their photos as they were hanging in Post Theatre as a way to inform everyone who was in charge. They were very cordial to me, but looking into their eyes, I could tell that they were very serious men. I told them that I was a law student here to observe the USS Cole trial and that I was interested in learning more about Ft. Meade. To my excitement and surprise, they asked for my business card and said that they would pass along my information to their head JAG officer who may be able to give me a tour tomorrow. I gave them Whitney’s information too, and we are both excited about the opportunity to have a sort of backstage tour to Ft. Meade.

I loved being at Ft. Meade to observe this hearing. I am sad that my fellow MCOP participants were unable to make it to the Al Nashiri hearing, but I am excited, as I know they are, to have the opportunity to travel out to Ft. Meade again in June to observe hearings related to 9/11. I am very grateful for this opportunity and feel as though I have been privy to something that very few people will ever get to experience in their lifetime.

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The Post Theatre

 

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The Garrison Headquarters, home of Commander Foley’s and Command Sergeant Major Latter’s offices 

 

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