As I mentioned in my first two blog posts I am headed on a mission to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to monitor U.S. Military Commission hearings in the case against Mr. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of being the mastermind behind the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen on 12 October 2000 that killed seventeen U.S. sailors and wounded dozens more. I am a student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and the previous posts describe the law school’s Guantanamo project, founded by Professor George Edwards, that nominated me for travel.
My last blog post described my travel from Indiana to the Washington, DC area yesterday, and arriving at the hotel last night across the street from Joint Base Andrews, where the flight departs for Guantanamo.
This blog picks up at Joint Base Andrews and describes the flight to Guantanamo. My next post discusses my arrival at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay and my first night there.
Joint Base Andrews
After arriving in the Washington, DC area yesterday afternoon (Friday, 22 July 2022), I slept at the Quality Inn across the street from the Joint Base Andrews Visitor Control Center and got up at 5:30 AM on the morning of 23rd July 2022 to walk over to the Visitor’s Center.
At 6:00 AM on the morning of 23rd July, I checked out of the Quality Inn and took the 7-minute walk to the Visitor’s Center.
Ms. Yumna Rizvi was already waiting outside the Visitor’s Center. We introduced ourselves and I learned that she works for The Center for Victims of Torture, and that she would be traveling to Guantanamo as an “observer” or “monitor” – in the same role as my mission. This is her first time to Guantanamo Bay (and mine as well). She had just gotten off the phone with our assigned Office of Military Commission (OMC) escort and told me that our escort was on her way to the Visitor’s Center to pick us up.
I had learned that throughout our mission to Guantanamo, at Guantanamo, and on the return flight from Guantanamo, we would be in the company of assigned “OMC escorts”. I will talk more about escorts in future blogs.
When our escort arrived, we learned that a third observer was driving himself on to base and would meet us at the Andrews airfield, and a fourth scheduled observer had cancelled their trip and would not be joining us.
Yumna and I boarded the escort’s van, and drove through our first checkpoint – the Main Gate to enter Andrews. We showed ID, and we carried on to the air terminal.
We met Tom, the third observer, in the parking lot at the air terminal and we all walked into a smallish nondescript building that turned out to be the air terminal. Most buildings that I saw on base at Andrews and at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay were rectangular, covered in beige or grey toned siding of (possibly) corrugated steel, and did not have features that would help distinguish one building from the next except for the presence of small signs labeling certain buildings.
Immediately upon entering and turning a corner we were stopped by a simple security checkpoint with a conveyor belt and x-ray machine for our luggage, and a walk-through metal detector. Immediately after the security checkpoint we walked up to a long counter in the same room, similar to the airline counters located in civilian airports, where military officials checked our passports, proof of negative Covid PCR test, Invitational Travel Orders (ITO), the Aircraft and Personnel Automated Clearance System (APACS) and the SECNAV form 5512-1. We were all checked in by approximately 7:15 AM and were shown to a small room off of the main room. The smaller room – which appeared to be like a private airport lounge — had couches and chairs, a television and DVD collection.
Yumna and I talked about our mutual interest in human rights, and Tom (who has been to Guantanamo Bay as an observer several times) told us about what to expect regarding food and housing (which I’ll write more about below).
NGOs / Monitors / Observers
Now is a good time to mention that the three of us “monitors” or “observers” are referred to by Guantanamo officials as “non-governmental organizations” or “NGOs”.
Each of the three of us represents a different, specific NGO. In my case, the NGO is the Program in International Human Rights Law (“PIHRL” pronounced “Pearl”) of Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and the PIHRL nominated me for this mission. The PIHRL created the “Military Commission Observation Project”, as the entity that would send observers to Guantanamo Bay (or a remote observation site at Fort Meade, Maryland) and compile the record of the observer experiences on the blog on the Gitmo Observer website. The MCOP also updates the Fair Trial and Know Before You Go manuals. You can learn more about MCOP on the Gitmo Observer website.
Though the term “NGO” refers to the group, Guantanamo officials frequently refer to the individual NGO representatives as NGOs. So, Guantanamo officials might say that the three of us individuals are NGOs, even though the term “NGO” refers to the specific non-governmental organization, and the individuals are representatives of the different NGOs.
Passing Time in the Terminal
As we (the NGOs) waited for our plane, we learned that Victims and Family Members (VFMs) would be traveling down to Guantanamo with us, along with Military Judge Lanny Acosta, the Prosecution team, the Defense team, media members (from the New York Times, Serial Podcast, and LawDragon), and linguists – interpreters and translators, intelligence officials, security officials, court reporters, and others. The three NGOs were requested to move from the small lounge to the larger main waiting area to give, we were told by air terminal personnel, the VFMs some privacy and comfort in that room.
VFMs are individuals that the Office of Military Commissions have identified as victims of the crimes that are charged, or family members of victims of the crimes that are charged. I was told that the group of VFMs traveling on this trip include both groups: individuals who were on the U.S.S. Cole when it was bombed and were injured (Victims); and family of people who were on the U.S.S. Cole when it was bombed and were injured or killed (Family Members).
In the main waiting room
While waiting by the windows in the main waiting room, the NGO escort handed each of the 3 NGOs a small briefing packet that provide a brief rundown of what is and is not allowed, mostly regarding photographs, upon approach to, landing in, and exploring around Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. It also reiterated ground rules that had been sent to observers in previous emails from the Pentagon, regarding watching out for the safety of iguanas (don’t run them over), prohibitions on drinking and driving, avoiding catching rides with strangers, requirements to wear seatbelts, and obeying traffic laws and speed limits.
We also learned that Vice President Kamala Harris was at the Andrews terminal about to board Air Force 2. We could see the plane outside the terminal window on the tarmac, but one of the escorts and military personnel at the air terminal instructed us not to take photographs.
At about 9:00 AM, a motorcade of police vehicles and black SUVs pulled up around Air Force 2, and I caught a brief glimpse of the Vice President walking up the stairs of Air Force 2, turning and waving toward the terminal, and boarding the plane. Tom, as well as other travelers standing around the windows in the terminal, told us that, in the past, travelers were allowed to stand outside and take pictures of Air Force 2 and wave to the Vice President and the President boarding Air Force One. But not on this day. This is one example of how policies may change from one trip to the next.
Meeting the Chief Defense Counsel
Tom and Yumna and I passed the time by people watching, with Tom identifying members of the Prosecution and Defense that he recognized from previous trips, as well as Dr. Sondra Crosby, whom Tom suggested may be testifying this coming week as a witness for the defense.
As we were sitting on the floor in the terminal next to the window looking out on the tarmac, a man in a black shirt with a Naval Station Guantanamo Bay patch came over, introduced himself as “JJ,” correctly identified us as “NGOs,” and asked us how and why we ended up there that day on our way to Guantanamo.
We each took turns telling him about our different programs and roles, and our personal interests in watching the proceedings of the Commission. Then we asked him about himself; it turns our that he is Brigadier General Jackie Thompson, Jr., who took over as Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions (OMC) in January 2022.
We were taken aback that a person of such high rank and essential role in the proceedings at OMC Guantanamo Bay would introduce himself so casually, take an interest in our roles as NGOs, and literally sit on the floor and chat with us about the Commission and his role. But that is exactly what he did.
Brigadier General Thompson spoke to us for fifteen to twenty minutes, answering our questions about his role (which he stated is more administrative than anything, helping the defense teams get access to the materials and resources they’ve requested), and his personal feelings about participating in the Military Commission at Guantanamo Bay, a place that he described in a way that brought the words “notorious” and “infamous,” to my mind, although I do not recall if he used those exact words. He shared with us that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) he was on the verge of taking a new role in a different capacity, after serving as Chief of the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service. He had previously expressed interest in the role as Chief Defense Counsel, Guantanamo Bay Military Commission and submitted his name for consideration but thought that after so much time had passed (I don’t remember how much time had passed), they had decided on taking a different route. He put in for a change in position to a new role, and his commanding officer said, “Hold on a minute, they want you out at Guantanamo Bay.” He was nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the Senate and has been in the role since the beginning of the year.
Brigadier General Thompson came off as sincere and sympathetic to the experience of the prisoners that had been transferred through black sites and held at Guantanamo Bay. He stated that the United States moved the prisoners to Guantanamo Bay and resorted to “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” because we were scared, and, as I understood him, we have been dealing with the international fallout in our reputation stemming from those decisions ever since.
Brigadier General Thompson mentioned several books that he read in preparation for his assignment to Guantanamo Bay. Here are two that I recall him mentioning:
- The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay, by Jess Bravin
- Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo Bay, by Mansoor Adayfi, a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.
Brigadier General Thompson was approachable and kind to the three of us, and genuinely listened when we talked about our interests in human rights at Guantanamo Bay.
Before I went on this mission, I had developed the impression that prisoners held at Guantanamo could not receive a fair trial, because, for example, the U.S. government had extracted information from prisoners at black sites using torture such as waterboarding, and then the government was using that information in the criminal cases against the prisoners. I did not think it was fair, or legal, to use information derived from torture in criminal cases against defendants.
However, I came away from that brief conversation with Brig. Gen. Thompson impressed by him as a person, and with an inkling of a notion that maybe Guantanamo prisoners are involved in a more balanced process than I had anticipated. I was determined to keep an open mind moving forward.
The Flight to Guantanamo
At approximately 10:00 AM, military personnel called the room to attention and began directing everyone to line up at the door of the terminal that leads to the tarmac (where Air Force 2 had just left) with their boarding passes in hand.
We were instructed not to photograph the boarding pass, which was a blue and red laminated card about the length of a standard bookmark, with information on our flight and destination handwritten in marker on fillable spaces on the front.
NGOs and the media were told to be first in line, in front of all the passengers.
We filed out, handing the boarding pass over on the way to the door, and boarded a bus.
Two busses total took everyone from the Judge, Brigadier General Thompson, Prosecution Team, Defense Team, NGOs, Media, VFMs, and interpreters, security, intelligence, etc. on a short trip down the air strip to a waiting Omni Airlines charter plane.
NGOs and Media were instructed to file on to the plane first, as we were assigned the last five rows.
It was a large plane – a widebody with two aisles, in a 2 – 3 – 2 configuration.
The plane had enough room for each passenger to have a row (two seats on the window sides of the plane, three seats in the middle row) to themselves.
Each seat had a TV screen in the back of the seat in front, where during the flight one could choose to watch from a selection of movies or TV shows. I halfheartedly watched a couple episodes of “The Office” and spent the remaining time reading a book I brought along, watching the map feature on the TV screen showing where we were in our flight path, and trying to sleep.
About an hour into the flight, the flight attendants served beverages and a meal. I asked for a vegetarian meal, which turned out to be tortellini, broccoli, a bread roll, and a cookie. I was starving by that time, having only had an apple and a cereal bar for breakfast at 5:45 AM that morning, so I ate all the food I was served on the plane.
The flight was staffed by a civilian crew that went through the same safety protocol routine that you would receive on any airline flying in the United States. The total flight time was 3 hours, and we landed at Guantanamo Bay right on schedule at approximately 1:20 PM.
My next blog will cover my first day and a half at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
J.D. Candidate 2025
NGO Observer, Military Commission Observation Project (MCOP)
Program in International Human Rights Law (PIHRL)
Indiana University McKinney School of Law