The Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law nominated me, and the Pentagon confirmed me, to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to monitor U.S. Military Commission hearings in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. Our Indiana project was granted non-governmental organization (NGO) status, which permits the project to send monitors (or “observers”). I am scheduled to be at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 14 to 21 October 2017.
My role as an NGO observer is to attend, observe and be observed, analyze, critique and report on the military commissions. My goal is to provide an independent and impartial account and analysis of what I observe, inside and outside the Guantanamo courtroom.
This is my fourth scheduled trip as part of Indiana’s project, and my second trip to Guantanamo. I was originally scheduled to observe at the beginning of October in the case against Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged high-ranking member of al Qaeda, but as reported by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, the hearings were canceled due to a medical issue experienced by Hadi.
Arrival at Andrews
4 of 5 NGOs posing with the Manual Excerpts and guidebook.
I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base Visitor Center where I met up with the other NGO observers at around 6:00AM. We were escorted onto the base by authorized personnel and directed where to go next to check in to our flight to Guantanamo. We checked in at
6:15AM and departed Andrews at 9:30AM.
This morning the NGOs discussed the latest news out of Guantanamo, including the sentencing of Mr. al Darbi yesterday (Friday, 13 October 2017) to 13 years in prison. In 2014, al Darbi pleaded guilty to war crimes charges, and agreed to cooperate with the government. He has already testified against two defendants in other Guantanamo cases.
We also learned on Friday that all the civilian defense lawyers for al Nashiri, who is charged with orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, quit the representation. Here is a link to the press release by capital defense attorney, and key member of the defense Rick Kammen, from Indianapolis.
Arrival at GTMO
We arrived at Guantanamo after an uneventful flight. We were processed into Guantanamo Bay and permitted to enter the Air Terminal waiting room, where I spotted Professor George Edwards, who had been at Guantanamo for the al Darbi sentencing and who was flying back to Andrews on the plane that brought me to Guantanamo. Professor Edwards and I had a rushed moment to take photos in front of the Guantanamo Bay Air Terminal.
Took advantage of a brief encounter with Professor Edwards to snap a picture at the Passenger Terminal.
The 5 monitors boarded a van that took us to a ferry that would take us across the bay to the area of Guantanamo where we will live for the next week – Camp Justice – and where the courtroom is located. We were taken to a secure trailer inside the court complex to obtain our security badges, then were driven to the Navy Exchange so we could pick up food and other supplies. After, upon arriving back at the tents where we will live, we were given a chance to quickly unpack and prepare our beds.
The 5 monitors attended a BBQ hosted by the defense team of Ammar al Baluchi, who is one of the five defendants in 9/11 case. In attendance were Brigadier General John Baker, who is Chief Defense Counsel of the Military Commissions Defense Organization, Mr. James Connell, a civilian death penalty defense attorney, and various other members of the defense team, including lawyers, paralegals, and other staff.
At the BBQ, Mr. Connell gave us a rundown of the motions on the docket for this week’s hearings, which will help us prepare for our observation when the commission hearings pick back up on Monday, 16 October. We also had the opportunity to speak with BG Baker, Mr. Connell, and the rest of the defense team.
4 of the 5 NGOs on the ferry after landing in GTMO.
It is quite apparent to me that this defense team is invested in transparency and takes a very open, very relaxed approach when interacting with NGOs. The team stresses the importance of having NGOs at the hearings, since we are basically “the eyes and ears” of the world, apart from the media and any channels the defense team may have of sharing with the public what goes on in one of the most high-profile, otherwise inaccessible proceedings in American history.
I have been nominated by the Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law and confirmed by the Pentagon to attend the military commission hearings in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. I will be observing from the military commission court at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 14 October until 21 October 2017.
Previous observations and nomination
This will be my third observation in the 9/11 proceedings. My first observation was at Ft. Meade, Maryland, where I observed hearings in the same case as this observation, against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, et al., via CCTV in October 2016. My second observation was in January 2017 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where I had the chance to observe the hearings in the case against Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged high-ranking member of al Qaeda.
Speaking with Professor George Edwards at Ft. Meade, Maryland before leaving back to Indiana after observing a pre-trial hearing via CCTV.
I was initially nominated to observe earlier this month at Guantanamo in the case against Hadi al Iraqi, but the hearings were canceled due to Hadi’s health and an urgent medical issue. The Miami Herald reported that Hadi had been referred for neck surgery after a period of time of known health issues. Hadi also had lower back surgery in early September 2017 that he is recovering from.
In order to observe through the MCOP, there are various levels of forms to be submitted to both the Program Director, and the Pentagon.
Pentagon Requirements The documents required by the Pentagon are 1) Hold Harmless Agreement, 2) Invitational Travel Worksheet, 3) Navy Base Access Pass Registration, and 4) NGO Ground Rules, along with a biography and picture. As an observer going through an Indiana University program, the forms must go through the appropriate channels in order to be approved by the university prior to sending to the Pentagon. Note to future observers: this will take time. Be sure you submit your paperwork immediately to avoid potential delays.
Once I received the stamped approved documents from IU, I forwarded these requirements to my Pentagon contact. The Pentagon contact will complete their formal review process, and will email confirmation if everything is in order. This may take a few days.
MCOP Requirements The MCOP document procedure is more simple than the Pentagon procedure. In order to participate through the MCOP, the observer must timely submit any and all Pentagon-related communication to the Program Director. He will facilitate the initial document review, IU review, and final review prior to submitting anything to the Pentagon. This will help in avoiding potential delay if any information is missing from the forms.
The MCOP requires for the participant to submit blog posts to this blog as a program requirements, an MCOP checklist to be completed by the observer, and proof of health insurance for the observer going abroad or even observing domestically.
The female NGO tent that will be “home” for the next week at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Preparation: The Gameplan
To prepare for my observation, I am re-reading the Know Before You Go to Guantanamo guidebook, since it has been a few months since my last observation. I need to prepare appropriate clothing to take with me on the weeklong trip, which includes professional clothing for events and hearings, and casual clothing for downtime. The observer is also responsible for booking her own travel to and from Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C., and any overnight accommodations that are necessary on the night before arrival into D.C. and the day of return from Guantanamo. My university-sponsored foreign health insurance is in place and my itinerary is scheduled.
This week is fall break for my law school, but I still have assignments and a mid-term exam to prepare for and complete in the next couple of days prior to leaving for D.C. on Friday morning.
Sheila Willard (J.D. Candidate, ’18)
NGO Monitor, U.S. Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
On 29 September 2017, the United States Department of State issued an advisory that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba”. Indiana University prohibits its students from traveling to countries for which the State Department has issued such travel warnings, unless IU grants an exemption.
On Tuesday, 4 October 2017, the IU Office of (OSAC) granted an exemption thus permitting IU students to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to continue to participate in the Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) of the IU McKinney School of Law’s Program in International Human Rights Law.
Why the Cuba Travel Warning?
The State Department warning stated that in recent months, “numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks. These employees have suffered significant injuries as a consequence of these attacks. Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.”
The warning noted that neither the U.S. nor Cuban government has “identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel and U.S. citizens in Cuba. Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”
The warning noted that “[a]ttacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”
The warning further noted that on September 29, the U.S. “ordered the departure of nonemergency U.S. government employees and their family members to protect the safety of our personnel.”
Indiana University travel ban and exemption
The Indiana University Overseas Study Advisory Council (OSAC) must approve international activity, such as the law student Guantanamo travel, and monitors such programs. OSAC “supports the Standards of Good Practice of the Forum on Education Abroad” and “endeavors to use” those standards “as a guideline when creating, monitoring and evaluating IU programs”.
When a travel advisory is issued for a country, OSAC requires IU student travel to cease to that country, unless OSAC grants an exemption.
The Cuba travel warning was issued on the 29th of September. On 3 and 4 October the Guantanamo project submitted to OSAC a 4-page document explaining the Guantanamo program, mentioning the distance between Havana (where the referred to medical issues were said to have happened) and Guantanamo Bay, that fact that IU students traveling to Guantanamo are confined to the U.S. military base there and have no access to the rest of Cuba, and that the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica handles consular matters for Guantanamo Bay, and not the U.S. Embassy in Havana, followed by an 86-page supporting document. OSAC granted the exemption on Tuesday, 3 October 2017, clearing the way for IU McKinney School of Law students to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba later this month.
Upcoming IU McKinney law student travel to Guantanamo Bay
The next student scheduled to travel to Guantanamo Bay in the IU McKinney program is Ms. Sheila Willard, a third-year law student, who is scheduled for a Guantanamo mission from 14 October 2017 to 21 October 2017 to monitor pre-trial hearings in the case against the 5 alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The five defendants face the death penalty for a series of war crimes associated with the attack that killed almost 3,000 people on 9/11.
At Guantanamo bay, Ms. Willard will be seated in the rear of the courtroom in the observation gallery, along with other monitors, media, and victims and family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks. She will be joined by representatives from various other NGOs from around the country to observe the hearings.
Ms. Willard traveled to Guantanamo Bay once before, to monitor the case against Hadi al Iraqi, an alleged high-ranking member of Al Qaeda. She also traveled to Ft. Meade, Maryland, where she monitored the case of the 5 alleged masterminds, in the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, et al., viewing the proceedings via CCTV from the Guantanamo Bay courtroom.
OSAC Requirements for travel to Guantanamo Bay
Any IU McKinney Affiliate (student, faculty, staff member, graduate) wishing to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a representative the Military Commission Observation Project is required to sign an exemption document that among other things contains a liability waiver. All MCOP monitors are also required to have insurance (e.g., covering health / accidents), which his offered to students through the Office of International Affairs, is already provided for faculty and staff, and is easily obtainable for graduates who may not have such insurance already.
Military Commission Observation Project at IU McKinney
On 28 February 2014, the Pentagon granted NGO observer status to the Indiana University Program in International Human Rights (PIHRL). Since then, PIHRL created the Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP), which nominates potential observers from an interested pool of students, faculty/staff, alumni, and affiliates to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or Ft. Meade, Maryland to observe in the high-profile cases against detainees that are charged with terrorism-related offenses.
MCOP representatives may travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to attend, observe, analyze, critique, and publish materials on the hearings. Travel may also be to the Ft. Meade, Maryland military base where the same Guantanamo Bay hearings may be viewed via secure video-link.
Interested in traveling to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or to Ft. Meade, Maryland?
As mentioned, travel through the Guantanamo project is available to faculty, staff, students and graduates of the IU McKinney School of Law. Information about registration for possible travel can be found here [though dates for the last quarter of 2017 and the first half of 2018 may not yet be posted on the website].
Read the Gitmo Observer blog to prepare for your observation
IU affiliates who are nominated for and travel to Guantanamo or Ft. Meade to observe the hearings contribute to the Gitmo Observer blog. Affiliates post at the time of nomination and Pentagon confirmation, preparation, once the affiliate begins the process of traveling to Guantanamo, once at Guantanamo and throughout the hearings, and finally upon return to the U.S. after observation. The blog posts contain varied information that may be valuable to any person preparing to travel to Guantanamo or Ft. Meade to observe the hearings.
Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual and the Know Before You Go guide for future observers
The MCOP project has made available to observers our Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual, a series of manuals that will help you in better preparing for your observation. Here are some insights into what you will find in the manuals:
what the right to a fair trial is and how a fair trial should look
how to assess whether a fair trial is being afforded to all Guantanamo stakeholders
roles & responsibilities of independent Observers sent to monitor Guantanamo hearings
background info on Guantanamo the military commissions
a schematic of the courtroom (so you can know who is who)
and a 76 page “Know Before You Go To Guantanamo” insert that will tell you what to expect on your flight to Cuba, the ferry ride across Guantanamo Bay from the landing strip to your Quonset Hut accommodations, base security, food (which can be quite good!), beach, boating, and of course the courtroom, the hearings, and briefings by the prosecution and defense.
The McKinney affiliate scheduled for each the hearing will be responsible to email to all of the Pentagon-approved observers a PDF version of the Know Before You Go To Guantanamo guide prior to departure from the U.S. All observers are encouraged to read the guide as the authors are experienced in Guantanamo and Ft. Meade observation and everything that is involved in making it a fully beneficial experience to all parties involved.