But that’s exactly what happened on January 31, 2017.
Indiana University McKinney School of Law Professor George Edwards, an International Human Rights Law Professor of mine and who was also my third-year law school research paper faculty supervisor, emailed me with a simple question: “Are you available for a quick phone call?”
I was puzzled. I had, years ago, inquired about the law school’s then new Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions Observation Project (MCOP), but after a few exchanges with Professor Edwards and other inquiries, I realized it was simply bad timing on my part.
That said, it turns out I had been in contact with Professor Edwards on an unrelated matter, and renewed my interest in traveling to Guantanamo Bay to monitor military commissions. Professor Edwards and I discussed the project, and he impressed upon me the gravity of the undertaking.
Professor Edwards asked If I really want to travel to Guantanamo Bay to do the work; which includes lots of preparation, work once you’re there, and work once you return.
He reminded me of the importance of the work of our law school’s Program in International Human Rights Law generally, and about the importance of its Guantanamo Bay work which began more than a decade ago.
It was quite clear this wasn’t a passive trip to Cuba; this was to be taken very seriously and the hard work required of each individual would ideally result in substantive and value add contributions to the policies and procedures Professor Edwards and his partners have worked hard to create.
After a discussion with my spouse, I was officially committed.
Background and Experience
For some background, I was not deeply involved with human rights when I was a law student, and I am not a human rights attorney. Since graduating from McKinney law school in 2010, I have worked in the private sector for a global aerospace company and in the nonprofit sector for a disabilities services organization. I currently work for the City of Indianapolis managing real estate transactions and economic development projects and strategy.
In short, I did not think that I was an obvious candidate for a mission to Gitmo as part of a legal proceedings observation effort. But, it is my hope that my outside viewpoint and fresh set of eyes can be beneficial and offer a different perspective as I observe and try to contribute to the understanding of existing guidelines and procedures.
Back to the Storyline
Once I told Professor Edwards I was committing to the assignment, it was time to better understand the process and the various entities involved.
The Indiana University McKinney School of Law Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL), under the leadership of Professor Edwards, established the Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP). After the Pentagon Guantanamo Bay Convening Authority granted MCOP Non-Governmental Organization Status, affiliates of Indiana University McKinney became eligible to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to monitor U.S. military commissions which were established to try alleged perpetrators of war crimes. Specifically, as observers or monitors, our 5 principal responsibilities are to: (a) attend; (b) observe; (c) analyze; (d) critique; and (e) report on hearings of detainees at Gitmo.
My process began by submitting certain personal information for consideration by the MCOP Advisory Council. Once approved for advancement by the Council, my name was then submitted to Pentagon as a nomination. At this point, the Pentagon can confirm you or deny you. Fortunately, on February 9, 2017, I was “CONFIRMED” by a Pentagon representative.
To be specific; from the Pentagon:
“You have been CONFIRMED to observe the March 18-25 9/11 Week ONE military commission in-person at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Currently, the flight schedule is as follows:
Departing from Joint Base Andrews to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay on 18 Mar (SAT) at 1000
Departing from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay back to Joint Base Andrews on 25 Mar (SAT) at 1000.”
I then had to fill out various forms and agreements. In some ways, this has been the most complicated part so far, since each of the documents is different, and each document must be completed following very specific guidelines. Professor Edwards sent my “completed” documents back to me numerous times for me to modify my original entries to comply with Pentagon requirements, and with requirements of the Indiana University administration including IU lawyers who review some of the forms before we observers are permitted to return them to the Pentagon. The templates that I was given to follow were helpful, but it was nevertheless still a challenge.
Finally, all the documents were reviewed by Indiana University officials (including the IU Treasurer) and by the MCOP, I sent all requisite information to the Pentagon in the hopes that they would grant me full clearance.
What Hearings will I monitor?
There are three sets of hearings ongoing at Guantanamo Bay now. During the week of my scheduled monitoring (19 – 25 March 2017), hearings will be held in the case against the 5 alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I remember where I was on September 11, 2001, and I cannot escape the impact it had on me. Pictured in this blog is Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind himself, who was, among other things, waterboarded 183 times.
This is Actually Going to Happen?!?
At this time my focus has turned to the nuts and bolts of traveling from Indianapolis to Cuba. Easy right? Yeah… I plan to fly to Washington, DC then snag a Lyft and drive to a hotel near Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, which is around a thirty-minute trip. I will stay overnight there, in anticipation of my morning flight from Andrews in a military airplane directly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
While at Guantanamo Bay, among other duties, I plan to provide updates via this blog site.
I hope to offer unique insights contributions to the existing body of work relating to legal proceedings, policies, and guidelines. I see this as an occasion to provide transparency from an “on the ground” perspective. Very few have had the chance to travel to Gitmo to monitor military commission proceedings; I intend to make the most of this opportunity, for the benefit of all concerned.
Duties and Responsibilities
One of the most important tasks of anyone traveling to Guantanamo Bay as part of the IU McKinney MCOP is to contribute to the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual. You can find the Manual here: https://gitmoobserver.com/military-commission-observers-manual/
This Manual is the product of the hard work performed by Professor George Edwards and other student and legal partners who have been observing at Gitmo for years. It provides many of the policies and procedures that govern the treatment of detainees and the trial and legal proceedings. It is an objective and independent document that is used by observers from other institutions and others as they form their own judgments as to whether Guantanamo Bay stakeholders are being afforded all rights and interests they are owed.
I feel it an honor to be able to observe and contribute to this important document.
I am proud to be an Indiana McKinney School of Law alum, and thankful for the opportunity provided by the MCOP and the Program in International Human Rights Law.
Brent M. Pierce, J.D. ’10
NGO Monitor, U.S. Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law