Final Days at GTMO – 30 – 31 May 2014

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James Zender, IU McKinney Law School JD graduate, at Guantanamo Bay in May 2014.

On the final two days of scheduled hearing days at Guantanamo Bay, the hearings either ended early or were deemed classified. The NGO Observers were excluded from classified hearings. Thus, we had lots of time to explore Guantanamo Bay.

What to do at GTMO when there are no hearings?

With significant down time when we can’t monitor hearings, there were still a number of ways for us to fill our time in Guantanamo.

The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) wing of the military has a heavy presence and their mission is to ensure military members have relaxing and appropriate non-work related activities to maintain somewhat of a normalized life experience in such a secluded location. They have an outdoor movie theater that plays brand new movies most evenings. They provide cook out facilities at the beach. There is a golf course and dive shop. With time to kill, we were able to take our pick on how we wanted to pass our time.

Radio Gitmo

Our first stop was Radio Gitmo, which is in charge of the airwaves on base. They host three radio stations and sell a popular Fidel Castro bobble head. After a tour of the facilities (I had never been in a radio station before) we got to see the back room where they still maintain a huge collection of vinyls. Our guide noted it was the largest vinyl collection in the military and they still regularly play them on the air.

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The vinyl collection at Radio GITMO

Camp X-Ray – A familiar site

On our way back from Radio Gitmo, we drove past the infamous Camp X-Ray site. This camp was the very first one to hold detainees after 9-11 until Camp Delta was built. After the transfer to Camp Delta, the military wished to raze Camp X-Ray, but a US court ordered it preserved as evidence. We were not allowed to take picture of it, but there are pictures you can find online from those authorized to take them. Its current condition is one of overgrowth, with trees growing in the camp walkways and weeds/brush growing up the side of buildings and out of windows. It was almost entirely an outdoor facility, with the majority of walls being of chain link fence and a lot of barbed wire. Cells were made of chain link fencing and had plywood roofs for some shelter from the sun.

Cafeteria style lunch

After the visit to Camp X-Ray, we went to lunch at the military’s mess hall. It reminded me of my college days, with the buffet style and various good looking but mostly tasteless foods to choose from.

Snorkling at GTMO, then Mongolian Barbeque!

After lunch, the majority of us joined a member of the military who graciously offered to captain a boat out to a dive/snorkel site. We spent the afternoon in the water and after showering, went to a Mongolian BBQ for dinner.

We ate on a patio which overlooked the bay, making for a great evening and view. There was an auction going on that night by the medic corps trying to raise money for an event of theirs. It was a lot of fun watching various members of the audience bidding and getting pumped for the items. Most of them were intricately handcrafted by members of the base and sold for a sizable chunk of money, including two for over a thousand dollars!

“Golf”

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The tan tent in the foreground was my quarters for the duration of the trip. The two green tents in the background were the mens showers and the tan one in front of them was the mens restroom

Friday morning I joined a few of the other observers for a round of early morning “golf”. I put that in quotes because I am not really sure it even counted as true golf, but there were clubs, balls, a hole with a flag, and a little bit of grass. Emphasis on little. We played nine holes and any more would have been too much with the heat starting to really crank up. We had quite a gallery of iguanas out there. After golf, we joined the rest of the group over at Windmill Beach. Oddly enough, the beach was directly next to Camp Iguana and the good snorkeling spot was literally directly below the cliff point the camp resides on. Guantanamo Bay offers so many interesting juxtapositions that whenever I was doing something fun and vacation-ey, I could not help but think about the twisted nature of it all. The location comes straight from some Jimmy Buffett song, with palm trees, warm weather, beaches, and copious amounts of sun. Yet, someone certainly is wasting away again in this Margaritaville, and it is not the off duty personnel at the Tiki Bar. It was difficult to remain focused on the fact that there were numerous detainees, many of whom have not been given a trial in over a decade. Sometimes I felt like the location of this detention facility was a cheap trick by the government to distract those on base from the real issues. A little R&R never hurts when it comes to softening the blow from a reporter’s story. I was happy we ended our trip on a more serious note. At 5:00pm, we met with three members of the defense team for a Q&A session.

Meeting with Defense Counsel

Our gathering with the defense side was much more casual and it felt more like a discussion of issues. They began by talking about how each of them became affiliated with the case and then opened it up for questions. One of the interesting things we discussed at the outset was the difficultly in establishing trust with their client. When you are detained by Americans, tortured by Americans, and on trial by Americans, there are obviously some misgivings when Americans show up to defend you. This discussion morphed into the issues of talking to their client about the case.

First, there is a number of relevant evidence that is classified and they are unable to talk to him about. The defense noted how it is extremely frustrating when al Nashiri asks them a question during discussions about the case and they are not allowed to answer him. Furthermore, the information they can talk about may not be prudent to do so. They detailed how he is suffering from some intense PTSD from his torture experiences. These experiences are a big piece of their case, but talking about them with him can easily aggravate and worsen his ill treated PTSD.

I was able to ask a couple of questions, and first I asked to what extent they were planning to explain to the jury exactly what hearsay is and why it is disallowed in federal courts. They noted they will definitely explain to what extent hearsay should be relevant but noted this issue may be one of the few bright sides to a military panel of jurors. As Major Hurley noted, the officers chosen for the panel will all be familiar with military justice and know already, to some extent, what hearsay is and its pitfalls. This should help them in appropriately weighing the large amount of hearsay evidence they anticipate the government to use.

Later in the discussion, I asked who was going to determine whether the US was engaged in hostilities at the time of the USS Cole attack. They responded that as it currently stands, the jury will make that determination. I noted this seems in direct contravention with the constitution as it only allows Congress to declare war, or the president to authorize hostilities under the War Power Act. I asked if the jury does in fact get to determine whether the US was at war, if that would present grounds to appeal the constitutionality of giving twelve random people the ability to choose if the US is at war. With a small smile, Mr. Kammen responded with, “We aren’t even sure to what extent the Constitution even applies here.”

After close to two hours, we ended our session. I joined a few of my fellow observers at the Cuban Club for dinner. Despite its reputation for being extremely slow service, we were in and out in an hour and a half. I had the Cuban Bay Style Steak, which was by far the best meal I had on base.

Airport Check-in GTMO.

Like when we departed for GTMO, we had to be up early to check in at the terminal. I was shocked that at both Andrew’s Airforce Base and GTMO the departure/arrival terminals were for the most part like any regular one. They were small, with only a couple ticket counters and a waiting room. We would line up, give them our passport and travel papers, place our checked luggage on the scale and get issued a ticket.

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Boarding Pass from GTMO to Andrews Air Force Base

From there we waited for boarding. Once it was time, we went through usual security checks. At AAFB, we were then bussed across the huge runway to our plane. We passed huge grey colored C-17s and a multitude of US diplomatic planes, painted similar to Air Force One. At both AAFB and GTMO we walked onto the plane up a flight of stairs and exited the same way.

The flight was operated by a commercial company and included a hot lunch. On the way down, they even had a movie: Monument Men. Unfortunately, my earphone plug did not work.

Talking with one of our escorts, I learned they used to fly down on the C-17s, but now lease out commercial flights because it is cheaper. The escort also noted there were about 110 people traveling there and back with us.

One of the interesting things about the trip was that we had to fly completely around Cuba in order to get to GTMO. Cuban does not allow us to fly over the island, adding a bit more time to the trip.

As I pulled into my apartment late Saturday evening after a long drive back, I was glad to finally sleep in a bed that was my own and not in a tent that needed to be sub 60 degrees to keep critters out.

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