As I was scrolling through my e-mail messages one cold afternoon in January 2022, I noticed an email announcing the opportunity to travel to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to observe the 9/11 pre-trial hearings through a program at the law school where I am enrolled – Indiana University McKinney School of Law.
I submitted an application through the law school’s Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP), which is part of the school’s Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL). Not long after that, I was interviewed by the program director, and soon after I received a message from the program telling me that I had been selected to travel to monitor Guantánamo Bay pre-trial hearings in the case against a prisoner named Hadi // Tamir who has been charged with multiple war crimes in connection with his alleged role as commander of Taliban and Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.
And then, I received an e-mail from the Pentagon, attaching a number of documents that I was required to fill out – I discuss those below.
The Pentagon message confirmed that I would be scheduled to fly from Joint Base Andrews (outside of Washington, D.C.) to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, at the end of March 2022.
While Cuba might have beautiful beaches and warmer weather than Indianapolis where my law school is, my mission to Guantánamo is not about the weather.
The Guantánamo Bay prison opened in January of 2002 in the aftermath of September 11th. Since then, 780 men and boys were taken to Guantánamo, foreign soil leased from Cuba over a century ago, because they were suspected of war crimes and for other various reasons. Today, thirty-eight prisoners remain. I am scheduled to attend the hearings of one of these prisoners: Mr. Hadi // Tamir.
The man claims his birth name is Nashwan al Tamir, but the US government has charged him under the name Hadi al Iraqi. Mr. Hadi // Tamir was held in secret CIA custody in 2006 after he was captured in Turkey and kept in a secret location for 5 – 6 months. In April of 2007, Mr. Hadi // Tamir was transferred to Guantánamo Bay.
I am a third-year law student at IU McKinney pursuing my Juris Doctorate degree with concentration certificates in both International Law and Corporate Law.
After I pass the bar exam, I plan to work at the Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP law firm as an associate in the Indianapolis office. As of now, it appears that I will likely join the Employment Law practice group. I hope that traveling to Guantánamo will offer me insights into human rights issues that might aid me as I practice law at Faegre.
Before law school, I studied Mathematics and Education at Haverford College and Bryn Mawr College through the school partnership (known as the “bi-co”) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After Bryn-Mawr, I taught for two years at Allen Academy, a small school in Bryan, Texas. During my experience teaching math in both urban Philadelphia and rural Texas, I developed a profound recognition of the individual human experience. Engaging with students that came from wildly different backgrounds and home environments inspired me to understand and acknowledge others’ perspectives and challenges. I began reading and studying theories of consciousness to better connect with my students, which led me towards my interest in international issues and human rights work.
After teaching for a few years, I decided to pursue my Juris Doctorate at Indiana University, McKinney School of Law.
During the 2020 summer, I took a course on International Law with Professor George Edwards. In International Law, we discussed topics ranging from humanitarian issues to constitutional questions of due process in extraterritorial regions and alleged torture when due process is ignored.
I learned about the Military Commission Observation Program through my connection with Professor Edwards and other students that traveled in the program before me. I am extremely honored to have been chosen as an observer and objective, civilian reporter of Mr. Hadi // Tamir’s pre-trial hearings at Guantánamo Bay. I am grateful to be at Indiana University McKinney School of Law where Professor George Edwards has crafted this tremendous learning opportunity for students and alumni through his honorable endeavors in human rights education.
My mission is to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique, and publish materials on the al-Nashiri hearings through an objective, fact-based perspective as an MCOP NGO observer.
I hope to provide a non-biased analysis of my observations and report my fact-based impressions to the rest of you on this blog.
Filling out many forms!
I have submitted all my forms and requisite materials to travel to Guantánamo. This mission required great preparation, from extensive reading of manuals to long checklists.
I have been required to submit documents to three entities:
For the Program in International Human Rights Law, I was required to submit the following two documents: (1) the Military Commission Observation Project acknowledgment and agreement form; and (2) the Military Commission Observation Project Agreement checklist. As I complete more items on the checklist, I am required to submit updated checklists to comply with the Program’s requirements.
For Indiana University, I was required to submit the following fifteen documents: (1) Cuba Travel Advisory Waiver, (2) Agreement and Release Form, (3) Proof of Covid-19 Vaccination, (4) Confirmation of Participation in the study abroad program, (5) Copy of my passport, (6) Travel planning and itinerary (travel itinerary was the last form I completed since travel arrangements came last in the process), (7) Visa information, (8) Emergency Contacts, (9) Emergency Plan, (9) Medical Information, (10) Traveler’s Health Form, (11) Insurance through the Study Abroad Office, (12) Trip Insurance, (13) Contact information while abroad, (14) Travel registration, and (15) Pre-departure requirements completion form
To officiate and confirm my travel with the government, I also submitted to the Pentagon the following six forms:
a Hold Harmless Agreement,
an acknowledgment of the NGO Ground Rules for Observation of Military Commissions,
an Invitational Traveler Worksheet to organize my journey from Joint Base Andrews to Guantánamo,
a Naval Station Guantánamo Bay temporary access card form,
an acknowledgment of the NGO Representative procedures for observation of military commissions; and
an NGO Observer bio, for a total of six forms.
I am also required to read the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual and the Know Before You Go To Guantanamo informational document. The extensive Manual describes the various stakeholders in the Guantánamo Bay Trials and provides further details on the legal issues involved. The Manual also provides an in-depth discussion on the importance of taking an objective position as an NGO observer. The Know Before You Go document provides over 100 pages of helpful information and anecdotes about traveling to Guantánamo Bay. Both are essential to read and understand before embarking on the mission.
The lengthy logistic process for witnessing the pre-trial hearings feels necessary when compared with the tremendous opportunity presented. Preparation is the key to understanding.
Excited for my journey. . .
My next blog will be published before I board the plane at Joint Base Andrews (formerly Andrews Air Force Base) bound for Guantánamo on 26 March 2022.
J.D. Candidate (2022)
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
I arrived at Guantanamo Bay 3 days ago to monitor U.S. Military Commissions, but so far, the hearings have been delayed / postponed until Wednesday, 9 March. Because of the delays, the other 5 observers and I have been doing other things during the time that the pre-trial hearings would have been taking place.
This morning I woke up early to go on a run with two of the other NGO observers. The three of us ran about 2.25 miles around the Camp Justice area, along a beach-front road that goes by one of the most beautiful beaches at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Glass Beach (described later in this post).
After the run, I showered in the shower facilities provided at Camp Justice (photos from a previous blog post) and then ate breakfast with the other 5 observers at the Galley. Because there were no pre-trial hearings today, the other 5 NGO observers and I, with the help of our escorts, planned the following itinerary for the day:
A “windshield tour” (driving tour) of Guantanamo Bay. Our escort drove us down the main roads of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay and drove us through some of the different housing neighborhoods. I did not photograph the houses during this driving tour.
A visit to the local radio station (Radio GTMO, described more later in this blog post)
Snorkeling at Glass Beach (described more later in this blog post),
A Question and Answer session with members of the al Baluchi (“AAA” aka “Triple A”) defense team and with the Chief Defense Counsel (described more later in this blog post).
Radio GTMO is a radio station that broadcasts in English on the NSGB (Naval Station Guantanamo Bay). Radio GTMO was established in 1940 and is run by military personnel. The station houses one of the largest military collections of vinyl records. According to our tour guide, the vinyl collection is worth approximately $1 million and was acquired over the years that it has been in operation when special military base vinyl records were produced in order to create the library of music that the DJs were able to broadcast.
During the tour, the tour guide, a member of the military wearing civilian clothing (I did not ask which branch the guide served in) showed us 6 NGO observers the broadcast room (pictured), a small recording studio (not pictured), and the vinyl collection of Radio GTMO (pictured). At the end of the tour, we were taken to the souvenir section of the radio station, where a variety of T-Shirts, coffee mugs, and other small souvenirs are sold. I purchased a T-shirt for my son and a coffee mug for my wife, both of which contain the text “Rockin in Fidel’s Backyard.”
After our tour of Radio GTMO, our escort took us to get lunch. After lunch, our escort drove us 6 NGO observers to Glass Beach, one of the beaches at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Our escort told us that Glass Beach got its name because of the large amounts of beach glass that can be found there.
Us 6 NGO observers snorkeled at Glass Beach and saw some amazing fish, colorful rock formations, and coral. When I set off from Indianapolis last Friday, 4 March, I did not expect to spend today snorkeling. I thought I would be observing the pre-trial hearings that were originally scheduled to start today. It feels a bit strange to be in “vacation mode” today, but at least all of us NGO observers were able to schedule a meeting with members of the “AAA” defense team for later today.
When we finished snorkeling at Glass Beach, our escort took us back to Camp Justice where we showered and got ready for our on-the-record meeting with members of the “AAA” defense team at 4:00 PM.
Meeting the Defense
The “AAA” defense team had invited us 6 NGO observers to a barbeque dinner and informal meeting yesterday, Sunday, 6 March (described in a previous blog post). At the end of the dinner, we got contact information for one of the defense attorneys, and asked to schedule a more formal meeting to discuss some of the issues that are expected to be argued during the pre-trial hearings this week. Earlier today, a member of the defense team reached out to one of the other NGO observers to formally schedule a meeting today, 7 March 2022 at 4:00 PM.
The Q & A meeting with the defense team took place in the NGO Resource Center in Camp Justice. The meeting consisted of all six NGO observers asking questions, and six members of the defense (three military team members, and three civilians) answering our questions. Questions ranged from broad questions about the 9/11 case generally, to more specific questions about the motions on the docket for the upcoming pre-trial hearings. Below is a selection of the questions and answers that stood out the most to me.
Questions and answers have been paraphrased and are not direct quotes.
Q: What is the role of the Chief Defense Counsel?
A: The Chief Defense Counsel, now General Thompson, does not represent any specific client, but instead acts as a resource for each of the defense teams that represent each of the defendants at Guantanamo Bay being charged. The Chief Defense Counsel helps to manage resources and funds necessary for the effective defense of the defendants.
Q: Will the pre-trial hearings still begin on Wednesday, 9 March, 2022? (The hearings were originally scheduled to begin today, 7 March, 2022. However, on Friday, 4 March, I was informed that the hearings had been postponed until Wednesday, 9 March.)
A: The start of the pre-trial hearings is still somewhat in question. The judge has indicated that the pre-trial hearings will still begin on Wednesday. There is a possible scenario where judge McCall holds abridged hearings instead. Abridged hearings would mean that the hearings are only in session for a few hours that day, instead of having a full day of hearings, which could last around 8 hours.
Q: What is the difference between the Convening Authority and the Judge in the Military Commission trial?
A: The Convening Authority has a kind of governor and prosecutor authority combined together. The judge listens to the oral argument and has a similar authority to a judge in a US federal court. (I later went online to read more about the Convening Authority on the Office of Military Commissions website: https://www.mc.mil/aboutus/organizationoverview.aspx)
Q: What kind of treatment does the defense want Mr. al Baluchi to receive?
A: The defendant wants to receive medical treatment that is similar to the medical treatment given to individuals who have received Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). There is a treatment plan that the defense would like to be implemented by the treating doctor for the 9/11 defendants. However, this treatment plan has usually not been implemented by the doctor on-site.
Q: What is the defense argument about the “meaningful separation” between detention at the CIA black sites, and detention at Camp 7? What does the prosecution define as “meaningful separation?” (The 5 men were held in CIA black sites and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques. While at these black sites, these men made statements. In 2006, the 5 men were moved to Guantanamo. They were interrogated and made statements.)
A: The defense argues that the so-called Enhanced Interrogation (torture) of the defendants that began at the CIA black sites, in effect, continued once the defendants were transferred from the black sites to Guantanamo Bay. The defense argues that, taken as a whole, there was a continuing course of conduct in the interrogation of the defendants, such that the interrogation/torture of the defendants at the CIA black sites has tainted any confessions/admissions/statements made by the defendants after being transferred to Guantanamo Bay cannot be used in the trial, because the effect of the interrogation/torture was so extensive that the statements cannot be reliable and should be considered as coerced statements.
According to the defense, the prosecution defines “meaningful separation” as a change in time, place, and questioner. The prosecution thus argues that statements made by the defendants after they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay can be used in the trial because the statements were made in a different time, place, and with a different questioner than any statements from the CIA black sites.
Q: What is the defense and prosecution argument about when hostilities began between the United States and Al Qaeda?
A: According to the defense, the prosecution argues that hostilities began in 1996 when Osama bin Laden released a statement declaring the United States an enemy.
Q: Why does defining when the beginning of hostilities was matter for this case?
A: According to the defense, this matters because whether or not there was an armed conflict at the time of the 9/11 attacks has an effect on whether or not a military commission is the appropriate place to try the defendants, as opposed to a civilian criminal court.
As I write up my thoughts from today, I am thinking about how many issues which, on the surface, appear simple, are still being argued in pre-trial hearings to the court. For example, the court has still not determined when hostilities began between the United States and Al Qaeda. And while the date when hostilities began may seem to be insignificant at first glance, this determination may in fact have a huge impact on the whole legitimacy of even using the Military Commissions as the proper venue for trying the defendants.
I am glad that I was able to meet with the defense team for “AAA.” However, I would like to meet with defense counsel for other defendants. I would also like to meet with the prosecution. The other NGO observers and I are working with our escort contacts to try to arrange more meetings this week. Hopefully we will be able to set up meetings with other defense teams and the prosecution.
J.D. Candidate, 2022
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
I arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, yesterday, Saturday, 5 March 2022, and last night was my first night sleeping in my home for the next week, the newly constructed tents in Guantanamo’s “Camp Justice”.
I am here to monitor pre-trial hearings in the U.S. Military Commissions case against 5 men charged with planning the 9/11 attacks. And I will share more about that aspect of my mission later in this blog.
But first, I will share about my accommodations here at Guantanamo, and how I spent my Sunday –
There are four beds in my tent, that I shared with 1 other male NGO (non-governmental organization) observer.
We were told that these new tents replaced tents that NGOs and others had used for years, and that the old ones were not sturdy, not as comfortable, and were kept incredibly cold to keep out the local wildlife, mainly iguanas and banana rats. However, it seems as though the newly constructed tents are able to keep the animals out without having to keep the temperature uncomfortably cold. I am thankful for that.
My bed was comfortable, the temperature inside our tent was very comfortable (the thermostat is set at 70 degrees F.), and I slept well and woke up feeling refreshed after my long day of travel yesterday. (You can read about my travel from Joint Base Andrews, in Washington, D.C., to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba here).
(In a future post, I will include a more detailed description of the tents and more photos of them.)
The pre-trial hearings
Originally, thepre-trial hearings for 5 men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were scheduled to begin on Monday, 7 March 2022, at 9:00 a.m. However, we were told on Friday, before departing for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from Joint Base Andresw, that the hearing are currently scheduled to begin on Wednesday, 9 March 2022 at 9:00 AM. We were told that the delay was caused by additional ex parte hearings between the judge and legal counsel. We were not told of the substance of these ex parte meetings.
A little later in this blog I will share more about the substance of motions that the prosecution and defense are scheduled to argued before presiding Judge McCall.
Because the hearings are not scheduled to start until Wednesday, the 5 other NGO representatives and I do not feel as pressured to spend our Sunday preparing for court, so we set out at a more leisurely pace.
Sunday Morning in Guantanamo
This morning I woke up around 7:00 AM, having slept comfortably for about 7 hours. The tent I slept in was quite nice for a tent, and I slept well.
As I woke up and started getting ready for breakfast at the base Galley, I could not help but think of my proximity to the Courtroom 2 facility that is set up to hold the pre-trial hearings and trials for the 5 men accused of platting the 9/11 attacks. The fence surrounding the courtroom is very close to my tent – the Camp Justice flags are just next to the fence, and the tents are near the Camp Justice flags.
It was a strange feeling to be so close to this Courtroom and to wake up feeling so refreshed and excited. I almost feel as though my excitement is misplaced or inappropriate given the context in which I am here — to monitor one of the most significant legal proceedings in the history of the United States criminal justice system
The 5 other NGOs representatives and I had breakfast at the Galley. A photo of all of us at Andrews before our Guantanamo flight can be found here [link].
For breakfast I had a fresh, made-to-order omelet and a bowl of fruit. I also enjoyed a hot cup of coffee. Breakfast at the Galley is cheap, only $3.85.
After breakfast, our escort drove us to Girl Scout Beach, one of the beaches close to Camp Justice that is picturesque in a way that almost made me forget that I was not just on a Caribbean vacation. We all walked around the narrow, stony beach for a while, and then our escort drove us further down a deserted road to the Guantanamo Lighthouse Museum, not far from Girl Scout Beach.
Guantanamo Bay Lighthouse Museum
The Guantanamo Bay Lighthouse Museum is incredibly interesting. A Navy officer who served as a museum tour guide gave us a tour of the museum. The museum details the long history of the United States’ presence in Guantanamo Bay. Museum exhibits describe how at the end of the 19th century the United States helped Cuba rid the area of the Spanish, the 1903 lease between the United States and Cuba allowing the United States to establish a military presence, and the renewed lease in 1936 which reaffirmed the lease terms which forms the legal basis for allowing the United States to continue to operate Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
After we toured the Lighthouse Museum, our escort drove us back to the Galley for lunch.
The other NGOs and I then went to the local dive shop to rent some gear to go snorkeling during later in the afternoon. We returned to Girl Scout Beach and snorkeled for a few hours, This was the first time I had ever snorkeled, and the variety of fish and coral I saw was incredible in Guantanamo Bay, just a few feet off the shore of the beach, in water that was only about 5-7 feet deep.
After we snorkeled, we returned to Camp Justice to get ready for our dinner and meeting with members of the defense team of one of the 5 accused 9/11 defendants. At that dinner, the other NGO representatives and I hoped to learn more about the issues and motions that are on the docket for this week’s pre-trial hearings.
Meeting the Defense Team for Mr. al Baluchi (“AAA”)
Around 6:00 PM, our escort drove us to an outdoor, covered campsite, overlooking one of the Guantanamo beaches — the location of the BBQ dinner meeting with the defense team. Apparently, during each week of hearings in the 9/11 case, the defense team for one of the defendants – Mr. Amir al Baluchi (also known as “AAA” or “Triple A”) – holds a BBQ for NGO and media representatives either the night that the plane arrives from Andrews, or the next night.
Tonight, the defense team had prepared a full meal for us, which included hamburgers, veggie burgers, several delicious salads and sides, and drinks.
We began with introductions – with the 6 of us NGO representatives meeting defense team lawyers, paralegals and others. They gave us a packet of documents briefly to explain the motions that are on the docket order for the next few weeks. The documents also contained a vocabulary list of words used in Military Commissions that we are likely to hear in the upcoming pre-trial hearings [I discovered that the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual: Excerpts contains a much more extensive vocabulary list – I had distributed copies of this Manual to all the NGOs while we were at Andrews yesterday.]
According to the packet and explanations from the defense, there are four types of motions that are on the docket to be discussed in the pre-trial hearings this week. These four main categories are:
1) “The CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Program” (which I understand to be about the black sites);
2) “The circumstances and conditions of confinement after the high value detainee (HVD) transfer to Guantanamo in 2006”;
3) “Discovery regarding the existence of hostilities between the United States and Al Qaeda”; and
4) “Form of discovery.”
Additionally, the packet listed two full pages of motions, with citations to the specific motion numbers, that are on the docket order and are planned to be discussed.
I have just arrived back from the meeting with the defense as I sit in my tent in Camp Justice and write my thoughts in my journal, which I will later type up and post as a blog post here (gitmoobserver.com). It was so interesting to hear directly from the defense attorneys who have been working on the 9/11 defense team for so many years. I am very excited to hear the arguments that will be made in the upcoming pre-trial hearings, especially the arguments regarding when the existence of hostilities between the United States and Al Qaeda began.
J.D. Candidate (2022)
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Travelling from Joint Base Andrews to Guantanamo Bay (5 March 2022)
I woke up at 5:00 AM, today, Saturday, to make try to reach Joint Base Andrews (formerly Andrews Air Force Base) at 5:50 AM.
I am scheduled to fly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, today, to monitor hearings in the U.S. Military Commission Hearings in the case against 5 men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. You can read more about my mission here and below.
For now, the sun has not risen, and I am set to meet a military escort at the Andrews Visitor Center, just outside the gate of the base. The escort had phoned me last night, telling me she would assist me and five other monitors (called “NGO observers” or “non-governmental organization observers”) to maneuver through procedures so we can all board the military flight to Guantanamo Bay. She had mentioned security passes, covid tests, and other procedures, which I will describe below.
Joint Base Andrews is approximately 35 minutes from my cousin’s house in Washington D.C., where I stayed last night, so we left at about 5:15 AM. I was tired, but I was excited.
Driving to Joint Base Andrews
During the drive, my cousin, who is a public defender in Baltimore, Maryland, told me a story to think about as I prepare for my mission to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique, and report on the hearings in Guantanamo Bay. My cousin recalled a story that was allegedly told by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
A man was visiting Italy on vacation and came upon three stone masons, their faces and clothes covered in dirt and dust.
The man walked up to the first stone mason and asked,
“What are you doing?”
The stone mason replied,
“I’m working for a living.”
The man then approached the second stone mason and asked him,
“What are you doing?”
The second stone mason took a second to think, and then replied,
“I’m cutting stones according to the blueprints that I receive, and making sure each cut is made exactly according to the instructions I am given.”
Finally, the man walked up to the third stone mason and asked,
“What are you doing?”
The third stone mason looked at the man, thinking for a moment, and replied,
“I am building a Cathedral.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the Joint Base Andrews Visitor Center, I was thinking about which stone mason I would be while observing at Guantanamo Bay, and which stone masons the other NGO observers I was about to meet would be too. (I will share more on that question that in future blog posts!)
At 5:53 AM, I hopped out of the car, took my bags from my cousin’s car, and said my thank yous and goodbyes to my cousin.
The 5 other NGO observers were already waiting outside the front door of the visitor center of Joint Base Andrews, along with our escort. I introduced myself to the other NGO observers and our escort. I told everybody that I was from Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and that our program had brought two books for each of the other observers to assist them in preparing for their own missions to observe the pre-trial hearings for the five alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I handed each NGO Representative:
Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual: Excerpts (only 152 pages, the full version is around 600 pages ); and
Know Before You Go to Guantanamo (130 pages,“This “Know Before You Go to Gitmo Guide” is primarily intended to provide helpful information for non-governmental organization (NGO) observers / monitors and others traveling to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for U.S. Military Commission proceedings, but we hope it will be useful for anyone traveling to Guantanamo for purposes other than the commissions.” (p. 7, Know Before You Go))
(authored by Professor Edwards with contributions by dozens of Indiana students, faculty, staff and students who have traveled to Guantanamo through our Law School’s Military Commission Observation Project)
Pre-Flight Procedure at Joint Base Andrews
At 6:00 AM sharp, the doors to the Andrews Visitor Center were unlocked, and all six NGO observers entered.
We were required to fill out a short form in order to each receive a Visitor Request Pass”, which were each required the security guard as we were driventhrough the Joint Base Andrews main security gate.
There were only two individuals working to process our Visitor Request Passes. Each NGO observer was called up, one at a time, to have their photograph taken. We were required to show our original photo ID, confirm our social security number, and provide a copy of our Pentagon-issued travel orders.
I think that some of us thought we might receive a new document called a “Visitor Request Pass” or something like that. But, we were not.
Instead, when we left the Visitor Center and reached the main security gate to enter Joint Base Andrews, the security officer scanned the barcode on our photo ID, which then apparently brought up the Visitor Request Pass electronically, which allowed us to enter the base. So, we did not receive a new document.
(I was told later that this Visitor Request Pass process was new, and that we were the first group of NGOs to experience it. Previously, all the NGOs were permitted to be escorted on the Andrews base by someone, like our escort, who possessed an appropriate badge. Now, even if an escort has such a would-be appropriate badge, NGOs still have to go through the new Visitor Request Pass process.)
After we passed through security and entered the Andrews base,our escort drove all of the NGO observers to a large, almost empty parking lot, in front of a building that looked like a deserted Walmart. We all had to take a rapid Covid-19 test.
We walked around the back into the loading dock of the warehouse-like building, stood in a short line, and after our names were checked off a list were handed a Covid-19 rapid antigen testing kit. We were instructed to swab each nostril for 15 seconds, and then sit and wait 15 minutes for the test result.
My test was negative, as were the tests of all the other NGO observers.
The Air Terminal
The escort then drove us to the Andrews airport terminal. This is the same terminal that is used by Air Force I, Air Force II, and many other official U.S. aircraft. In fact, Vice President Harris is scheduled to land at Joint Base Andrews this upcoming Monday, 7 March.
We entered the main door of the air terminaland were greeted by a uniformed individual. The entrance was small, the size of a long, narrow hallway.
Before proceeding to security, we were required to fill out a Covid-19 health screening document that the Pentagon had emailed me yesterday and that I had printed off at the print shop yesterday and have our temperature taken. We also were required to show a negative Covid-19 test (it had to be a PCR test, and it was in addition to the rapid antigen test I took this morning at Andrews) that had been taken in the past 72 hours. After passing the health screening, we were directed to walk left down the hallway and proceed to security.
The baggage x-ray scanner was not working, so my carry-on bag was individually inspected. My checked luggage was not scanned or inspected at this point either. I was given a green tag to put on my checked luggage so that after the plane arrived in Guantanamo Bay, my bag could be identified as an NGO observer bag. Apparently green is the color for NGOs, with yellow and other colored tags for other groups, like the prosecution, defense, judges, and court administration.
I then stood in what seemed like a regular airline line to check my bag and get my boarding pass. At the check in desk, I had to show my passport, my APACS, and my Pentagon-issued travel orders.
The military personnel handed me a boarding pass that was reusable – it was a laminated document with the flight details handwritten using a dry-erase marker. It was not paper, and we could not keep them as souvenirs after we boarded the flight – we had to surrender them when we were leaving the terminal and moving to the tarmac.
Private waiting room
After all the NGO observers checked their bags and received boarding passes, we went to a private room in the terminal and waited for the 10:00 AM scheduled flight to start boarding.
While waiting, we were given a brief orientation of some of the ground rules that NGO observers are expected to follow, and of what to expect while in Guantanamo Bay. This time waiting for the flight was also the first real opportunity I had to start getting to know who the other NGO observers were.
The flight to Guantanamo left closer to 10:30 AM, and arrived approximately 3 hours later. I was exhausted from waking up so early and slept through most of the flight. I woke up as the plane began its descent, and saw the ocean below me, and the rolling hills along the coastline as the plane approached the runway for landing.
Even though I slept most of the flight, I made some interesting observations while on the plane. Different “groups” were boarded into different sections of the plane. The NGOs and the media (there were two journalists on the flight, Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times and John Ryan of Law Dragon) were seated in the back of the plane. In front of the NGOs and the media were the defense team. In front of the defense team were the prosecution. Finally, at the front of the plane were the victims’ of the 9/11 attacks family members.
Arrival in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
When I landed in Guantanamo Bay they deplaned in the usual manner, from front to back. After getting off the plane and walking towards the outdoor security gate adjacent to the runway, I was required to show my passport and Covid-19 vaccine card. I was not asked to show the other documents that I received from the Pentagon yesterday.
A yellow school bus came to pick us up and drove us about 3 minutes to a ferry, which took everybody from the airport part of the base across the actual Guantanamo Bay to the part of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay where I am staying.
The first thing the other NGO observers and I did after departing the ferry was to get in a van, get driven to the Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC), and have my photograph taken and have my ID badge produced.
Another escort then gave us a tour of the viewing gallery in Courtroom 2 where the pre-trial hearings I am scheduled to attend will be held.
No photography is allowed in Court 2, or the surrounding fenced-in area. The viewing gallery is in the rear of the courtroom, separated from the courtroom well (where judge, defense, prosecution, jury and other participants sit). The viewing gallery is separated from the courtroom well by what we were told is sound-proof glass.
In the viewing gallery there are TV monitor through which we can see what is happening in the courtroom right in front of us. There is a 40 second audio delay on the monitors, which our escort said allows the court to turn off the audio if classified information is spoken, to try to make sure that no classified information reaches people who do not have authorization to access the classified information. I have not yet experienced this, but I imagine it might be interesting to watch something happening in real time, be unable to hear it, and then 40 seconds later to watch the same thing on a TV monitor with sound. I will report more on this phenomenon later, after I have had a chance to sit in on a live hearing.
The escort explained that the six tables on the left of the courtroom are used by the defense, the guards sit on the far-left wall near the defense, and the prosecution uses the tables on the right of the courtroom. There are shackle bolts under each seat where the defendants sit, but the escort told us that the defendants are not shackled while in the courtroom.
After our tour of the courtroom, our NGO escort took all of the NGO observers to Camp Justice, where I will be staying this week, and showed us our tents, the new shower, restroom, and laundry facilities, and the NGO Resource Center. The “old” facilities are pictured in Know Before You Go. They are dramatically different, apparently. The new version of Know Before You Go will include photos of the new facilities.
In the evening, the five other NGO observers and I had dinner at the Guantanamo “Gold Hill Galley” (also known as “Iggy Cafe” — as pictured in this blog). This Galley is a cafeteria-style café on the base that serves inexpensive meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Galley — which I guess is kind of a “mess hall” of sorts — tends to have a lot of military personnel dining in it, in uniform. Posted on the wall as you enter the Galley is a set of regulations as to what you can wear or not wear in the galley, what you can and cannot carry into the galley, etc. There is a section in the galley set aside for military officers.
After dinner, I went back to Camp Justice to get ready for bed.
Final Thoughts On My First Day At Guantanamo
I am sitting in my bed in my tent in Camp Justice writing up what happened today, processing my thoughts and feelings, and getting ready for the upcoming week. It feels surreal being here right now, having the opportunity to see Guantanamo Bay, having the opportunity to meet with different stakeholders over the next week of the Guantanamo Bay trials. I am looking forward to watching the pre-trial hearings in the courtroom that I toured today. I wonder how the atmosphere of the courtroom will change when it is full of attorneys for the defense and prosecution, when the defendants will be sitting in front of the judge, when the other observers in the viewing gallery, including the VFMs – Victims and Family Members of Victims – some people in the courtroom could be people who were injured during the 9/11 attacks. Some people could be family members of victims who were injured or killed., watch as the attorneys argue their motions in front of the judge.
My last thought before calling it a night is of my first meeting with an important stakeholder tomorrow. The other NGO representatives and I are scheduled to go to a casual meeting with 1 of the 5 defense teamstomorrow night (Sunday, 6 March) At this meeting, I have been told that the defense team will give a short presentation on the motions that are on the docket to be argued, and help answer any initial questions we have about the motions on the docket, and really answer any general questions we might have about what to expect at the pre-trial hearings scheduled to begin this Wednesday, 9 March. The defense team members present will also provide a BBQ style meal for us at the meeting.
J.D. Candidate (2022)
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Today is Friday, 4 March 2022, and I am traveling from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Washington, D.C. so that I can fly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba tomorrow as an observer of the pre-trial hearings in the U.S. Military Commissions that are scheduled to occur the week of 5-12 March 2022. The hearings are in the criminal case against the 5 alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and I am attending as a monitor from the Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law.
To the Indianapolis Airport
My brother drove me to the Indianapolis airport, where I arrived at approximately 9:45 AM. I immediately went to check in for my flight and check my bag. After checking my bag, at approximately 10:05 AM, I went to the terminal B security line where I went through the usual security protocols. I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast, so I stopped at Tinker Coffee Company and ordered an egg and sausage sandwich, and a hot cup of coffee. I boarded my flight, and departed on time, at 11:21 AM. One hour and thirty-eight minutes later, I touched down in Washington D.C.
Reading Carol Rosenberg’s Guantanamo Book
As I was in the air, I continued reading Carol Rosenberg’s book, Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon’s Alcatraz of the Caribbean. Carol Rosenberg has been reporting on the Guantanamo Bay cases since the first prisoners were brought to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002. Reading her book has been a great primer on trying to orient myself around the long history of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, contains a great array of photographs of Guantanamo Bay, and discusses major issues such as information about the Camp Justice Court, hunger strikes by the prisoners, and even estimates of the costs of maintaining the facilities and keeping the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
My cousin, who lives in Washington D.C. and works as a public defender in Baltimore, Maryland, picked me up from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and drove me to his house, where I stayed tonight. I hadn’t seen my cousin in about six years, and we were able to catch up with each other while in the car.
When I arrived at my cousin’s house, at approximately 2:00pm, I got connected to wifi, and saw that I had received another email from the Pentagon. This email contained updated travel orders, Aircraft & Personnel Clearance (APACS), a reminder of important documents to bring to Joint Base Andrews (passport, vaccination card, blank health form required for Covid-19 protocols, APACS), and a reminder of the flight schedule from Joint Base Andrews to Guantanamo Bay. While I was expecting to receive this set of documents from the Pentagon before my flight, I had been worried that the email which contained the documents would be sent too late and that I wouldn’t have easy access to a printer. Thankfully, this was not the case.
I needed to print the updated travel orders that were contained in this email, so my cousin and I looked online to find a print shop that would be able to print documents in color (the APACS document I received from the Pentagon was required to be in color). Once we found a print shop that was reasonably close, we scheduled a time to go and have my documents printed.
My cousin had to finish working before walking to the print shop, so I took this time to take out my copy of the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual: Excerpts that I was given by the MCOP before departing Indianapolis, and reviewed some of the international law, domestic law, and information about what the right to a fair trail entails in the context of Guantanamo Bay.
The Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual
The Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual assists NGO observers prepare for Military Commission hearings. It provides background information on the stakeholders (the stakeholders include “defendants and defense counsel, the prosecution, victims and victims’ families, judges and judicial staff, fact and expert witnesses, the press, governments with detained citizens, governments whose citizens were injured by the alleged crimes, Guantanamo Bay detention facility staff (Joint Task Force – Guantanamo), and the general international and U.S. publics. Stakeholders also include Guantanamo Bay prisoners who have not been charged with any offenses, and are thus not considered “defendants”. involved in the hearings”), what a right to a fair trial means, a brief history of the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Military Commissions, among other useful information. I would recommend anybody interested in what is happening at Guantanamo Bay, even those who will be unable to travel to Guantanamo. (You might also find Know Before You Go To Guantanamo interesting and helpful.)
The print shop
The print shop was approximately 1.5 miles from my cousin’s house in Washington, D.C, and there is a convenient walking path that we were able to take to get there. We left at approximately 4:30 PM. The walking path goes along one of the train lines, and there are painted murals, dog parks, and brand-new apartment buildings along the path.
Phone call from Guantanamo Bay escort
About half-way to the printing shop, at 5:09 PM, I received a phone call from an unknown phone number. I answered the phone and it was a woman, the escort designated to assist the NGO observers once we arrive outside Joint Base Andrews tomorrow morning. The escort told me that it had been confirmed that there will be a total of six NGO observers flying out of Joint Base Andrews to Guantanamo Bay tomorrow morning. She also told me that all the NGO observers were going to Guantanamo Bay for the first time. Finally, she told me that the pre-trial hearings that had originally been scheduled to begin on Monday, 7 March had been pushed back, and were currently scheduled to begin on Wednesday, 9 March.
I don’t ordinarily answer the phone when I receive a call from an unknown number, but because my flight to Guantanamo Bay was tomorrow, I suspected that the phone call may have been related to that travel.
Continuing to the print shop
I continued walking to the print shop, got my documents printed, and walked back with my cousin to his house around 6:00pm. My cousin and his wife cooked dinner, we talked about his work as a public defender,
I shared with him some information about my mission at Guantanamo, and we discussed just how long the pre-trial proceedings were taking, and how it feels almost unreal that the five alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks were first charged in 2008, and the trial is still in the pre-trial phase. Then, I went to bed, ready to wake up at 5:00 AM, so as to arrive at Joint Base Andrews at 5:50 AM to start the process of getting boarded on the flight to Guantanamo Bay.
As I sit in the second floor bedroom of my cousin’s house writing up everything I did today, I can’t help but think about the what is going on in Guantanamo Bay, why the pre-trial hearings have been rescheduled from Monday, to Wednesday, and things I will be able to blog about on Monday and Tuesday, the days that will now not include observing any pre-trial hearings. I will be taking extensive notes in my journal throughout my time in Guantanamo Bay, and will be turning those journal notes into additional blog posts to be posted here as well.
J.D. Candidate, 2022
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)