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)
Program in International Human Rights Law
Indiana University McKinney School of Law