GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA — We arrive midmorning on Saturday. Some of us have been traveling since before dawn to get to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then on to a three-hour flight to Cuba, a 30-minute ferry ride to the base, and a 25-minute drive to Camp Justice, the encampment where we will live.
A few miles away are detention facilities, including the one housing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators.
Sometimes characterized as “high-value detainees,” they are the alleged masterminds of 9/11. Also nearby is the only known military “black site” on American soil. A place where torture happened.
We are here to see the quintet some might call the 21st century’s most reviled alleged felons. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, they are still awaiting their day in military court. We’re here to see how far the hearings will get this time. We’re scheduled to be here for two weeks. It is the first time the hearings have been convened since August of last year.
President George W. Bush—purportedly egged on by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—decided to forgo proceedings that follow principles of law and rules of evidence traditionally applied to criminal cases in U.S. district courts.
Now, almost 15 years later, I’m reporting on the hearings designed to bring these men to trial and ultimately to justice. Our group includes: observers from human rights groups; survivors of relatives killed on 9/11; an author writing a book about concentration camps; a reporter from The Miami Herald who probably knows as much about this military tribunal as its participants; one from the Associated Press who covers the Middle East; another from NPR; and a three-member crew from Fox.
By evening we have settled into our quarters in a canvas-covered, Quonset-like building reminiscent of lodgings at a summer camp. For the first time I become aware of how racially mixed the workforce and diners are. I have seen more black people here in 24 hours than I see in a week in Austin.
SUNDAY: An afternoon press conference with Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the government’s lead prosecutor, goes on for more than an hour. Snatched into service within months of retirement, he answers questions succinctly and directly. Where a response would expose strategy, he demurs. I find myself surprised by his candor, and I have a pretty good bullshit detector.
MONDAY: We head to court, barely a 10-minute walk from Camp Justice, passing through a melodramatic four-point sequence of identification stops before being directed to assigned seating behind triple-paned bulletproof glass. The detainees are brought into the courtroom one by one. Each man sits at the end of a row, one behind the next.
All seems to go swimmingly until the third person queried, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, says he recognizes a newly installed translator as a CIA linguist from a previous black site where he and others were tortured. Shocked silence. The hearing is recessed until 9:33 a.m., resumed at 10:40, and recessed for the day at 10:57.
TUESDAY: No public hearing; closed sessions. The CIA guy’s name, previously published by Reuters, is now a state secret and has been retroactively declared classified information. So much for transparency.
WEDNESDAY: The hearing is recessed until April. The press conference with defense attorneys is as informative as it can be, since they cannot answer questions about torture.
THURSDAY: We tour Radio GTMO (“Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard”).
FRIDAY: Packing. Lunch. Dinner with a retired officer, who whipped up a splendid meal of corn and crab bisque, oven-roasted salmon, tortellini salad, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and peach cobbler with French vanilla ice cream. If she thinks Guantanamo should be shut down she doesn’t say so.
SATURDAY: Seven days shy of our scheduled departure, we’re reversing our field.
Back at Andrews, luggage is collected, goodbyes said. Everyone heads off to wherever. Except one.
He Who Cannot Be Named stands alone, face concealed and bundled up against the wicked Arctic air whipping across the airport grounds. Waiting for his CIA connection?
I wave. He doesn’t wave back.