Public observers at Ft. Meade, Maryland were banned today from watching satellite broadcasts of a hearing being conducted in the Guantanamo Bay courtroom, even though public observers physically at Guantanamo were permitted to view the same hearing.
Pentagon pledge of open and transparent hearings
For many years U.S. Military Commissions have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to try individuals charged with war crimes. The Pentagon has stated that these criminal proceedings should be open and transparent, and that to facilitate transparency the Pentagon permits a small number of Observers to travel to Guantanamo to monitor hearings. Observers typically represent human rights or advocacy groups, or academic programs. Observers serve as eyes and ears for the general public, who do not have the opportunity to travel to Guantanamo Bay to witness hearings.
Observers sit in an enclosed spectator gallery in the rear of the Guantanamo courtroom, separated from the lawyers, prosecutors and defendants by a double-paned glass. Observers can see what is going on in the courtroom, and hear what is said.
The Pentagon also permits Observers to view Guantanamo proceedings by close-circuit television (CCTV) in a secure facility at Ft. Meade, Maryland. Observers at Ft. Meade can see what the cameras are pointing at in the Guantanamo courtroom, and hear what he Observers at Guantanamo hear.
Today, in what appears to be the first time, Observers were permitted to be present in the Guantanamo courtroom spectator gallery and monitor proceedings live, but Observers were not permitted to view those same proceedings by CCTV at Ft. Meade.
Thus, NGOs in the U.S. were effectively banned from monitoring today’s proceeding.
Why the ban?
It is unclear why Observers in the U.S. were banned from monitoring the hearings by CCTV at Ft. Meade today, while Observers could view the hearings live at Guantanamo.
Lawyers for the prosecution and defense apparently argued yesterday and over the weekend about the Ft. Meade ban. But, at least some of those arguments were held behind closed doors, with no Observer being permitted to hear. Though motion papers were filed related to the ban, those documents are subject to a security review and are not releasable to the public until after 14 days, and may not be released even then.
There are 5 Observers at Guantanamo this week, and they were able to hear some arguments about the Ft. Meade ban. Indeed, they were in the courtroom able to witness today’s hearings – the same hearings from which the Fort Meade Observers were banned.
Again, it is unclear what the convincing argument is that Observers can watch today’s proceedings live in the Guantanamo courtroom, but other Observers cannot watch today’s proceedings by CCTV at Ft. Meade.
My Ft. Meade experiences today
I arrived at Ft. Meade well before the scheduled start time of today’s hearing. The staff member who oversees the Ft. Meade viewing room was there, the lights were on in the room, and the miniature lockers were in place in the rear of the viewing room so Observers could store their cell phones which can’t be used during the CCTV broadcasts.
The minutes ticked away, and soon I learned that an official message had been received that the hearings would not be broadcast to Ft. Meade today, and that was by order.
Nevertheless, I waited to see if the hearing would open, with an announcement of closure made, before the transmission stopped.
Also, was there still a chance that the hearing would be transmitted in full? Just as an order is made, an order can be reversed.
In today’s case, the initial order regarding this week’s hearings was that Observers could monitor at Guantanamo Bay and at Ft. Meade. A subsequent order reversed the portion of the former order that permitted transmission to Ft. Meade. That reversal prohibited the transmission to Ft. Meade. That reversal could very well have been, and could still be, reversed, and transmission could have occurred today. It appears that it would only take a flip of a switch to begin transmitting from Guantanamo to Ft. Meade, and that such transmissions could be started at any point.
I continued to wait. The large video screen in front of the viewing room stayed dark and blank.
The person at Ft. Meade who oversees the technical side of the transmission sits in a different room of the same building where the viewing room is. I checked with that person, and was informed that there was no sign that the transmission would commence.
I left about 90 minutes into the hearing, with the screen still dark and blank, witnessing none of today’s testimony.
Yesterday I discussed in a blog post what my options were for being able to observe today’s hearings, particularly since I (and other Observers) chose not to travel to Guantanamo Bay this week in part because we were initially permitted to observe at Ft. Meade. We were informed 4 days ago (Friday) that NGOs would be banned from viewing the hearings at Ft. Meade. By then it was too late to catch the Sunday flight to Guantanamo Bay to view the hearings in person, sitting in the spectator gallery, along with the 5 Observers who are there. There are 14 seats reserved for Observers in the Guantanamo courtroom, so they had room for 9 more Observers this week.
Had I known last week what I know today, I definitely would have requested travel to Guantanamo Bay for this week’s hearings.
I am scheduled to deliver in Australia early next week, and I could have delivered (and still could deliver) that lecture by video rather than in person, freeing me to be at Guantanamo Bay for this entire week. Indeed, if I could go to Guantanamo tonight or tomorrow for the remainder of this week’s hearings that are not being transmitted to Ft. Meade, I would do so and deliver the Australia lecture by video.
Perhaps the Military Commission will permit Observers who were banned from viewing this week’s proceeding at Ft. Meade to view the videotape? The videotape cannot be classified, because if it were, then the 5 Observers at Guantanamo this week would not have been permitted to be in the courtroom for the hearing.
If the reason for the Ft. Meade ban was security associated with transmitting it stateside – maybe the possibility of interception / hacking – then I and other interested Observers could watch the videotape in a secure room at the Pentagon, or in a secure facility when we are next at Guantanamo Bay – and even possibly watch the video in the courtroom itself.
Also, if any victims and family members of victims (VFMs) are interested in watching the video, maybe they will be permitted to do so as well. Several FVMs were present in the Guantanamo courtroom for today’s hearings, but VFMs were denied the opportunity to observe today’s hearing at Ft. Meade, just as Observers were denied the opportunity to observe. Indeed, any member of the general public, aside from Observers, were similarly denied the opportunity to observe at Ft. Meade, though members of the general public are entitled to observe at Ft. Meade, as are Observers, VFMs, and media.