My Morning at Guantanamo Bay Hearings at Ft. Meade

In front of the Post Theater at Ft. Meade.

In front of the Post Theater at Ft. Meade.

I am up early this Monday morning for my first visit this year back to Ft. Meade, Maryland to monitor Guantanamo Bay, Cuba hearings in the U.S. Military Commissions case against al Nashiri. He is the alleged mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole suicide bombing in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

What, Guantanamo Bay proceedings in Maryland?

Yes. The Pentagon runs a secure videolink direct from the Guantanamo Bay courtroom to select viewing sites in the U.S. where press, NGO Observers, victims and their families, and others may view the proceedings. The only site in the U.S. at which NGO Observers and members of the public may see what’s happening in the courtroom is at Ft. Meade, Maryland, about 35 miles outside of Washington, DC.

It’s kind of like watching a Court TV show, except that the viewing venue at Ft. Meade is an actual live theater, where they screen first run movies on a huge commercial theater-sized screen, and host live plays, lectures and other activities on a stage. Its concession stand sells buttered popcorn, Milk Duds and Skittles, and fountain drinks. This week’s feature film is Selma, screened in the evenings after the Guantanamo courtroom goes dark.

Courtroom sketch of al Nashiri by artist Janet Hamlin. Today in court he was wearing a similar casual white short sleeve shirt. His hair appeared to be a little longer than in this sketch, but it appeared equally as kempt.

Sketch of al Nashiri from a previous court session. Today in court he wore a similar casual white short sleeve shirt. His hair appeared to be a little longer than in this sketch, but it appeared equally as kempt. (Sketch by Janet Hamlin)

Al Nashiri’s February 2015 hearings

The al Nashiri case is in the pre-trial hearing stage. Every month or two they schedule two weeks of court time in which defense and prosecution lawyers argue about logistical, substantive, or technical issues to be resolved before the actual trial begins. For the February 2015 hearings, the lawyers are arguing whether the prosecution must provide the defendant certain information, whether al Nashiri will face the death penalty, and the relevance of the U.S. Senate’s 2014 Torture Report.

But before they reach those issues, they are arguing over whether certain Pentagon officials are exercising “unlawful influence” over the al Nashiri judge, who like other Guantanamo Bay judges was ordered permanently to relocate to Guantanamo Bay and surrender all non-Guantanamo judicial responsibilities, as these changes purportedly would help speed up the trials. U.S. law clearly provides that judges are to be in control over their trials, including the speed at which their trial proceed, and outside U.S. government officials are not meant to intervene.

I won’t know what will happen in today’s hearings until 1:00 p.m., since the morning session, which was scheduled to begin at 9:00, is closed to NGO Observers. I have over four hours of out-of-court time to catch up on reading al Nashiri court documents, blog writing, and working on the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual.

Driving to Ft. Meade

Getting to Ft. Meade is not easy.

I woke up this morning before 6:00, and took a taxi from my downtown DC hotel to Washington National Airport, where I rented a car to drive to Ft. Meade. The taxi ride to the airport was historically scenic, passing the Watergate, the Washington Monument, and Arlington Cemetery.

Driving from the airport to Ft. Meade was slow, not because of rush hour, but because much of the 35 miles to the base is on narrow, two lane roads with many stop lights. I will try another route back to DC this afternoon. Perhaps it was a GPS problem?  It might be an advantage driving into DC when most of the traffic is driving out at the end of the day. All said, it was a pretty uneventful trip, which took about an hour from airport to the Ft. Meade Visitor’s Entrance.

Photo courtesy of CNN

Photo courtesy of CNN

Arriving at Ft. Meade

I remembered from last time I was here where the Ft. Meade Visitor’s Entrance is, off of Reese Road, and pulled up to the base security checkpoint. But I’d forgotten about the separate vehicle inspection line, just to the right before base security. So I had to make a quick U-turn, adding 30 seconds to my journey. The vehicle inspector asked me a few questions about my Indiana drivers license, my rental car  contract, and whether I was a member of the press. He was easily convinced that I was a credentialed NGO Observer, and very generously gave me a Ft. Meade color map, on which he traced lines to the Post Theater, where I am now.

I arrived here just before 8:30 a.m., took a couple of selfies in front of the Post Theater sign, and then bumped into Bev, who is a Department of Defense contractor who I believe supervises this viewing site. She announced to me that court was commencing at 9:00 a.m., but that the morning session would be closed to NGO Observers. They close the proceedings when they are discussing classified information that NGO Observers, victims and their families, press, and others are not permitted to hear. So, none of us can be in the courtroom or on a video-link, whether we are in Guantanamo Bay or Ft. Meade.

I wondered why those of us at Ft. Meade were not warned in advance that the unclassified, open proceedings would not commence until early afternoon. At the very least, none of us would have had to wake at the crack of dawn, only to hurry up and wait all day. (As it turns out, two people in the Observation room received notification last night at 10:00 that the open session would start at 1:00 p.m., and they arrived at the Post Theater at 12:45, well-rested after a good night’s sleep and a 50 mile drive.)

So, what do I do for the next four hours from 9:00 – 1:00 waiting for the open hearing? I could drive back to Washington, and come back this afternoon. But that would be a wasted time.

So, of course, I immediately thought that this would be a great time to catch up on Gitmo Observer blog writing, to review court documents in the al Nashiri case, and to brush up on the Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual.

Drug sniffing dog Axa and her handler

Drug sniffing dog Axa and her handler at Post Theater today, after finding all the drugs planted by the MPs.

Canine Patrol

A little while after I entered the Post Theater, a group of Military Police (MP) Canine Patrol staff came in, asking whether the Guantanamo Bay hearings were on. I told them that the hearings were closed until 1:00 p.m., and that there would be no live broadcast until then. In fact the screen was showing the morning news, with stories about al Shabaab and threats to U.S. shopping malls and the weather.

The MPs said that they wanted to do some training with some of their dogs.

The next hour or so was extremely interesting, watching 5 different dogs successfully sniff out planted explosives and illegal drugs that the MPs planted in different parts of the theater.

The first dog, a black lab, was an explosives expert. She found three different satchels of explosive powder and other incendiary material, hidden inside a trash can, underneath a movie theater seat, and high above the arch of a doorway. All in record time. After each find the shiny, fine-coated lab received an award, a tug and tussle with a “kong”, which is a plastic toy attached to a colorful twisted heavy rope.

The next two explosive expert dogs performed equally as well, quickly finding all the planted explosives and receiving well-deserved treats.

Then came Axa, the first of two drug-sniffing dogs. She was a small dog, with a rugged black and grey fluffy coat. The

Fram - A drug sniffing dog and his handler.

Fram – A drug sniffing dog and his handler this morning, after the 9-year old canine gracefully located all of the drugs planted by the MPs.

MPs had hidden the drugs on the opposite side of the theatre from the explosives.  Axa’s handler gently waved her open palm towards the trash can next to the door leading from the lobby into the theater, and Axa did not react.  The handler repeated the hand gesture, called a presentation (the hand wave gesture), this time towards the door frame. Axa stood on her hind legs and leaned against the door frame, circled around beneath the frame, stood up again, and excitedly sat on her hind legs. Axa found the 5 grams of marijuana hidden in the frame above the door. She was rewarded with a yelp by the handler who tossed Axa a kong for finding the pot.

Axa then found cocaine in a trash can in front of the theater, and ecstasy underneath a seat in about row 8. Axa is only 2 years of age and has been working as a canine sniff dog only since October 2014. Well done.

Finally, Fram, the senior sniffer, was brought into the theater.

Fram was 9 years of age, lived his first 7 years in Germany, and arrived at Ft. Meade only 2 years ago. He was seasoned, he knew the drill, and he was very good at what he does.

Today Fram earned his kongs, and hugs from his handler who said “I’m going to adopt Fram when he retires”. Several other handlers chimed in “No you’re not! I’m going to adopt him”! So, we’ll see who ends of with a handsome, smart and talented dog who even at the ripe old age of nine did not look like he was anywhere near retirement.

Dog Handlers are gone — What Next?

The dog handlers have left, and I’m back to full concentration on my work (despite interruptions by a person stopping in to ask for directions to a base office, a guy coming in to turn on the bathrooms’ water which had been turned off over the weekend to prevent frozen pipes during the snow storm, and a guy changing lightbulbs above the concession stand.

My next post will have more substance and will report on my al Nashiri motion-review and my Guantanamo Bay Fair Trial Manual work.

(George Edwards, Ft. Meade, 23 February 2015)