My Experience: Monitoring Guantanamo Bay War Crimes Hearings

I Monitored Guantanamo Bay War Crimes Hearings Broadcast Live at Ft. Meade, Maryland.

Guantanamo Bay war crimes hearings are broadcast via CCTV live from Cuba to Ft. Meade, an army base in Maryland. I traveled from Indiana to Ft. Meade, Maryland to monitor Guantanamo Bay pre-trial hearings in the case against Khalid Shaik Mohammed and the 4 other alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

I arrived at Washington-Dulles International Airport on Sunday, 9 October 2016 for hearings scheduled to begin the next day. Monday, October 10, Columbus Day. We learned that the hearings would start a day later, on Tuesday, October 11, so I decided to use Monday to tour Washington D.C. Unfortunately, while at Ft. Meade I missed my husband’s bar admission ceremony on Tuesday morning in Indianapolis. Thankfully, he had encouraged me to attend the hearing, as he understood that it was a very special opportunity.

Local Transportation and Venturing into D.C.

I booked a Super Shuttle – a shared van cheaper than a taxi — to take me to Ft. Meade. Since I opted for the cheaper option, it took about 2 hours to reach the military base. The van dropped off 3 other passengers on the way. The Ft. Meade Visitor Center was closed when I arrived. I was thankful that fellow Indiana University McKinney School of Law students Katherine Forbes was waiting at the gate to escort me onto the base. Katherine is a member of the military, and has an ID card (Department of Defense CAC – Common Access Card) that permits her to enter the base and escort others onto the base. I was not going to be able to pick up my Ft. Meade access badge until Tuesday morning, just before the hearings began. We had dinner and went to our hotel for the evening.

The next morning, Columbus Day, Katherine dropped me off at Odenton train station (the MARC station), about an 8-minute drive from Ft. Meade. The train ride into D.C. was very reasonably priced, and only took about 40 minutes from Odenton Station to Union Station. Union Station is located half a mile from the Capitol building and the Supreme Court. From there, I used Uber to get around and spent the day wandering around the city and walking from landmark to landmark. I made it back to Ft. Meade by 7PM, and had dinner with Katherine before continuing to prepare for the next day’s hearing.

The Hotel

Katherine is in the Indiana National Guard, so we were able to stay at the Candlewood Hotel located inside Ft. Meade. The hotel was built only 3 years ago, and was very clean and well-appointed. Our room had a kitchen, including a dishwasher, full size refrigerator, microwave, and coffeemaker. The cabinets were stocked with silverware, dishes, and glasses. Every morning, the hotel offers a complimentary continental breakfast.


Entrance to the Candlewood Hotel located inside the base at Ft. Meade.

Visitor Center

On Tuesday morning, Katherine and I drove to the Visitor Center and met up with Faisel Sadat, an Egyptian international LL.M. student at IU McKinney. He needed to be escorted onto the base, and Katherine was able to do that. Faisel and I were each issued a day pass onto the base.



After successfully picking up my day pass to access the base.

Badge Issue

Originally, we were under the impression that our Ft. Meade badges would be valid for one year from the day of pick-up. Unfortunately, there must have been a misunderstanding, because we were only issued a one-day pass. We were able to get back onto the base with no problem, and made our way to the hearing located at the McGill Training Center.


Driving up to the Ft. Meade control station after picking up our badges from the Visitor Center.

The Courtroom – Viewing from McGill Training Center

The room in which the hearing was broadcast was a large training/educational room in the McGill Training Center. There were several rows of desks with 2-3 chairs per long desk. In the back of the classroom, there was a cubby box of around 20 individual cubbies to place your phone in, which could be locked with a key. Personal communication devices are not allowed during the transmission of the court proceedings. Apart from the IU McKinney attendees, there was one gentleman present who works for a federal law enforcement agency, another gentleman I did not meet, and a lady whom I also did not meet.

The section of the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay that was visible at any given moment depended on who was speaking and which camera was panning at that moment. There was a camera that showed most of the courtroom, with the defendants, their counsel, and the prosecution visible at once, a view of the judge when he spoke, a view of the witnesses who testified seated next to the judge, and live feed from witnesses who transmitted their testimony from a location just outside of Washington, DC.

From the perspective of the judge looking into the courtroom, the 5 defendants were seated on the right, each at a separate table.

Each defense team was split according to the defendant, and divided into 5 small groups, seated in the 5 rows. Seated at the 6th and final table on the defense side were lawyers for one of the defendants who did not want his lawyers to sit next to him at his table. Each defendant was wearing a headdress, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the most recognizable in his

The prosecution sat at a series of tables to the left of the judge.

The Hearing

The hearing started at 9:00 AM with Military Commission Judge Army Colonel James L. Pohl addressing each defendant, inquiring whether they understood their rights to waive attendance at the hearing. Each of the five defendants was required to be present to hear their rights, but, Ramzi bin al Shibh was not present when court opened.

The judge addressed al Shibh’s counsel, requesting that he convince al Shibh to voluntarily be present at the hearing, otherwise, he would be involuntarily brought in.  He called for a 15 minute recess for bin al Shibh’s counsel to speak with him. When the court reconvened, al Shibh had joined his defense at the table.

bin al Shibh stated on the record that he boycotted the legal proceedings, and in an act of protest, refused to acknowledge his right to waive attendance. The judge asked him several times to acknowledge his rights, but al Shibh refused. Eventually, the judge asked for al Shibh to be escorted away, and we found out through Aline Fagundes, a McKinney LL.M. student who was present in the observer gallery of the courtroom, that al Shibh was removed, while

The four other defendants — Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ammar al Baluchi, and Mustafa al Hawsawi — acknowledged their rights in Arabic. Each defendant had an interpreter seated next to him to who helped facilitate conversations between the defendants and their defense team members. There was an off camera interpreter who interpreted on-the-record communications in the courtroom.


The hearing proceeded with the following motions/issues addressed:

  1. Defense raised al Baluchi’s motion to compel declassification of classified documents.
  2. Regarding the seizure of a certain document containing defense notes from the defendant, four witnesses were put on the stand to testify:
    • “Captain L”
    • “Captain B”
    • “Assistant Watch Commander 1482”
    • “Major (?)”
  1. Regarding the modification of a protective order, Learned Counsel James Connell III asked the judge to require the modification of the order in question, and not allow the creation of a new order as a matter of simplification.


The courtroom recessed at 12:45 PM for lunch, and the group of observers made our way to lunch on the base, to discuss what he had experienced so far, and ask for clarification from Professor Edwards on procedural questions.

The 6 IU McKinney Observers went to the Food Court. We chose different restaurants, got our food, then all sat together to talk about what transpired that morning in court. We talked about the proceedings up to that point, and discussed why the hearings were taking as long as they are, in general.

I learned from that defense’s counsel appear to work as hard for their clients as any defense counsel would, notwithstanding what criminal actions the client may have allegedly been involved in or how much evidence may exist of the client’s involvement.

We then took group photographs before returning for post-lunch proceedings.

Afternoon Hearing

 The court reconvened at 2:00 PM.

The first motion presented after lunch concerned classified material. The defense argued that documents received from the prosecution were highly redacted and in some cases, unable to be read other than a few words. It was a concern to the defense that the redactions were causing discovery issues, and that redactions were being applied arbitrarily and in a disingenuous manner, to intentionally interfere with defense’s preparation. The hearing continued until 4:00 PM on the topic of redaction, until Judge Pohl called for the hearing to be continued the following day.


After the courtroom was dismissed for the day, I had a chance to speak with one of the other Observers who seemed to work for the government and who has been to Guantanamo Bay on many occasions. It was interesting to speak with someone who appears to have sound knowledge about the Military Commissions.

A little later, I was dropped off at the Visitor Center where Super Shuttle was picking me up to take me back to the airport. While at the Visitor Center, I ran into Professor Edwards, and we discussed the hearing, and my background and interests. He was at the Visitor Center to discuss the issue of several observers being given one-day passes instead of a year-long access card. The person in charge told Professor Edwards that they would look into the problem. After discussing the issue, Professor Edwards and I took several pictures outside of the Visitor Center that may be helpful to a future observer in finding where to go upon arrival at Ft. Meade.


Enjoying a nice chat with Professor Edwards at the Visitor Center while waiting for my shuttle back to Dulles airport.

From Ft. Meade to Dulles, and Home Again, Reflection

This time, I was the only person picked up by the shuttle, so the drive to Dulles only took about an hour, even in evening rush hour traffic. The plane ride back home was quick and uneventful. I look forward to observing again in the future.

This opportunity afforded me a valuable glimpse into the proceedings that are ongoing in Guantanamo Bay. The fact that I am one of not many people to actually be able to witness the proceedings feels very special, and something I will remember for the rest of my life.

I knew that the hearings would have the normal U.S. court proceeding structure, but the realization did not occur to me until that morning that I would have the rare opportunity to hear the “9/11 Five” speak live. Seeing the defendants and hearing them speak both Arabic and English really brought a very human moment to an occurrence in history that seemed surreal to me, having happened when I was a young girl.

I urge anyone with an interest to apply as an observer. The opportunity is very unique, and not something many people can say they have ever experienced from the vantage of the IU McKinney Military Commission Observation Project.

Sheila Willard, J.D. Candidate 2018

NGO Monitor, U.S. Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)

Program in International Human Rights Law

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

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