My Preparation and Travel to Washington D.C. and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Figure 1: Working on my blog post in Washington D.C. and reviewing the courtroom rules in the “Know Before You Go to Gitmo” manual in project binder.

I am scheduled to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 30 July to 6 August 2022 to monitor pre-trial hearings in the U.S. Military Commission case of US v. al Nashiri. Mr. al Nashiri is charged with crimes associated with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, killing and wounding dozens of U.S. sailors. 

My mission at Guantanamo is to attend, observe, be seen, analyze, critique, and publish materials on these hearings.

I was nominated for this mission by a project of Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where I am a second-year student. Professor George Edwards of our school founded the school’s Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL, pronounced “Pearl”), to which the Pentagon granted Non-Governmental Organization Observer Status (“NGO Observer”), permitting IU McKinney faculty, staff, students and graduates to travel to Guantanamo. The PIHRL created the school’s Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP), which nominated me.

You can read more about my nomination to this program here.

Final Preparation for my Mission in Guantanamo Bay

As I mentioned, before,  I was required to fulfill many requirements to confirm my travel to Guantanamo.

The MCOP sent me a “Guantanamo Checklist” as a guide to the process of preparing for my mission. Among other things, I needed to make travel arrangements to and from Washington D.C. because the plane to Guantanamo leaves from and returns to Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, gather and organize all the forms required by the Pentagon, and schedule a PCR test.

Scheduling a PCR Test and Getting Test Results

All observers traveling to Guantanamo must take a PCR covid test within 72 hours of departure, and the results must be negative. I researched where to get the PCR done, how long it would take to get results, and whether the test was the correct test. Rapid tests are not acceptable. I scheduled my test through CVS Pharmacy for Wednesday, 27 July 2022 at 1:30 p.m. eastern time. My test would comply within the 72-hour timeframe and was administered about 69 hours before my scheduled departure of Saturday at 10:0 a.m. I made the test booking online on Wednesday, 20 July 2022 about a week prior to my test date. I called and spoke to a CVS representative after booking my test and she assured me my results would come within 24-48 hours after taking it – so the results would be back by 1:30 on 29 July. On 28 July 2022, at around 6:00 p.m., my negative results were emailed to me, about 30 hours after taking the test, and 39 hours before the scheduled departure time on Saturday. With the negative PCR test result in hand, I was ready to travel to Guantanamo on 30 July 2022. 

Organizing All the Forms and Paperwork Required by the Pentagon

Before I left Northwest Indiana on at 10:00 a.m. on 29 July 2022, I tripled checked that I had all the necessary paperwork packed.

The Pentagon requires that several copies of documents and forms of identification be available as a hardcopy before you arrive at Joint Base Andrews, which is a military base located in Maryland, and it is the location where I am scheduled to board the plane to Guantanamo.  I had created a Guantanamo binder to hold my important documents. In that binder was my passport, state I.D., covid vaccination card, copies of my negative PCR covid test result, three copies of my invitational travel order (ITO), two copies of my SECNAV 5512, two copies of the U.S. government health declaration form, and three copies of my approved country and theater clearance, also known as APACS. I previously filled out the SECNAV 5512 form and returned it to the Pentagon, and now I have the Pentagon-approved copy in my binder.

After confirming I had all the documents and the correct number of copies for each, I organized my identification and paperwork in folders inside my binder so I could easily access everything when I arrived at Joint Base Andrews on Saturday morning.

Traveling to Washington D.C.

Figure 2: The plane I was scheduled to take from Chicago to Washington D.C.

Because I was living and working in Northwest Indiana this summer, I decided to fly out of Chicago, Illinois to Washington. One of the requirements on the MCOP checklist is to share my proposed travel itinerary with Professor Edwards and the Acting Deputy Director, Professor Dunlap, before booking my flight. After they reviewed my flight information and felt comfortable with the days and times, I was able to purchase my flights about two weeks prior before my departure date.

I flew from Chicago Midway on 29 July 2022 to Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. I experienced some minor flight delays, and I arrived in D.C. in the early evening, about 4:15 p.m., an hour later than my original scheduled arrival. It is crucial to be aware of any flight delays to ensure you make it to Washington in plenty of time to make it to Joint Base Andrews by your scheduled arrival time.

Figure 3: Lauren Lanham on her flight from Chicago to Washington.

Luckily, my close friend, Sara, lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and I was able to stay with her the night before my departure to Guantanamo Bay. She and her new puppy, Indy, picked me up from the D.C. airport and showed me to their new apartment. Because she lives in Virginia and I live in Indianapolis, it has been a few months since I last saw Sara. We had lots to discuss, and I took the time to explain my Guantanamo mission to her and how important it was. We had Chipotle for dinner and enjoyed a walk around the National Mall. It was a beautiful night in the nation’s capital. We returned to her apartment, where I checked my email and ensured everything was in place for tomorrow. She lives twenty minutes from Joint Base Andrews. We plan on leaving promptly at 5:30 a.m. to ensure I arrive at the base by 6:00 a.m.

Figure 4: The Washington Monument at dusk – on my night in D.C. before my early morning Guantanamo flight the next day.

Heading to Joint Base Andrews

I arrived at the Visitors Center of Joint Base Andrews right at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, 30 July 2022 and was greeted by my escort. Escorts serve as guides to the NGOs while they are at Joint Base Andrews, on the plane, and at Guantanamo. The escort and I waited for the other NGOs to arrive before we departed from the Visitor Center at 6:15 a.m. The first email I received from the Pentagon listed that five NGOs would be traveling to Guantanamo at the same time as me. These individuals would be representing other organizations and projects. Only four ended up arriving. There were three women: one representing Georgetown Law, another with Judicial Watch, and one with University of Miami School of Law. There was also man sent by Pacific Council. The escort then drove all of us into the base and dropped us at the airport terminal at 6:30 a.m.

The terminal was very similar to the airports I have been to. There is a security line, bags are put through an x-ray scanner, and all personnel must walk through a metal detector. I went through security and was escorted to the ticket agent, where they checked my ITO, APACS, negative covid test, and passport. The agent approved my travel and handed me my boarding pass. At this point, it was only 7:00 a.m., and my flight was not scheduled to leave until 10:00 a.m.

I was initial informed that rapid covid tests would be administered to all travelers at the terminal, however, no one to my knowledge received a test.

Our escort took us into a small room in the terminal. It had a few couches where the other NGOs, our escort and I sat for the next two and a half hours. We spent that time to get to know one another and discuss our various missions. I gave each NGO their own copy of the “Know Before You Go to Gitmo” and the “Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Excerpts.” These manuals were created by the Military Commission Observation Project and are provided to NGO observers to help them prepare for their travel to Guantanamo and serve as a guide in fulfilling their mission. It was my duty as a representative of the MCOP to ensure that each NGO observer had a copy for their benefit.

During our time at the terminal, I met Ronald Flesvig, the Director of Public Affairs for the Office of Military Commissions. He introduced himself to all the NGOs and welcomed any questions we had before our departure. He talked candidly about his experience at Guantanamo. The conversation was informative and enlightening. He shared with us what to expect when inside the courtroom, how the defendant would be dressed, and some of the logistics of operating a Military Commission.

At 9:30 a.m., right before we boarded the plane, the escort informed me that the hearings concerning al Nashiri scheduled for Monday 1 August 2022 and Tuesday 2 August 2022 had been cancelled due to what he described as a small covid outbreak. The other NGOs and I are hopeful that the proceedings scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday will still continue. We were also informed no member of the media would be flying down to the island on our flight, meaning the public will have a limited information on what happens in court this week.

Finally, at 9:35 a.m. it was time to board the plane. I was escorted to a shuttle bus where I was driven across the tarmac to a set of tall steps that lead you to the door of plane. NGOs are asked to sit in the back, so that is where I was headed. I chose a window seat and had the entire row to myself. The pilot stated that only 35 people were on my flight.

The plane departed from Joint Base Andrews shortly after 10:00 a.m. The flight to Guantanamo Bay was three and a half hours. I spent the flight reviewing my copies of the “Know Before You Go to Gitmo” and “Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Excerpts” manuals, organizing my notes, and even managed to sneak in a quick nap. At 1:00 p.m. the pilot announced we were beginning out descent. I packed up my materials and prepared for landing.

My next blog post will discuss my experience arriving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Lauren Lanham 

J.D. Candidate (2024) 

NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP) 

Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL) 

Indiana University McKinney School of Law 

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