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Gitmo Diary: Visiting the U.S.’s Most Infamous Courtroom

Cora Currier is down at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, where Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is facing capital charges for the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Nearly 13 years later, these are still pre-trial motions.

June 13: This story has been corrected.

I’m down at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, where Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is facing capital charges for the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Nearly 13 years later, we’re here  for what are still pre-trial motions. The Gitmo trials, restarted by President Obama in 2011, have been marked by secrecy, snafus, and endless delays. After having followed Gitmo for years, this is my first visit.


The trip to Guantanamo Bay, my first, begins at Andrews Air Force Base at six in the morning. We board the plane, a Miami Air charter, in a strict pecking order: media at the very back, interspersed with observers from law schools and the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, then military commissions personnel, attorneys, then finally, the judge and victims of the bombing and family members (VFMs, in commissions parlance).

As we descend into Guantanamo – skirting Cuban airspace, our flight captain reminds us – I can’t see much from my aisle seat, but it’s drier and browner than I expected, the water a beautiful blue-green. It’s hard to tell where the ultimate border of the U.S. base is. The hills are dotted with fences and guard towers. Dusty tracks give way to paved roads as we approach the beige buildings around the airport. The mountains in the background seem to be definitively Cuba, in shadow as they are.

Off the plane, we are scooted into the receiving line, a shaded porch-way with “no photos” on the fences. Our passports are checked (alas, there’s no special stamp) at a podium shaped like a guard tower. Our on-base public affairs officers meet us. They are cheerful and friendly, though each of them is being shadowed by their replacement, due to an upcoming tour rotation. There’s a greater than one-to-one ratio of officers to media almost everywhere we go.

Our constant minders herd us into a van and onto a ferry, where I stand near the back leaning on a big truck as we go across the bay, past some green marshes, past the mouth of the bay, traversed by a small barge and patrol boats.

Camp Justice is the area of Guantanamo where military commissions trials are held. It is separate from the detention facility.

Again we head into the vans, and to the Media Operations Center, in a giant white hangar:  a lovely building, white and covered in gridded windowpanes. On top of a hill is the only building we’re allowed to photograph from the outside, the SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility) where trials were once held, and which now functions as a watchtower. The courtroom is now housed in the Expeditionary Legal Complex, pronounced “elk.”  (“Expeditionary,” we are told, because it could be picked up and moved, should, say, Gitmo be closed.)

Outside we see the trailer from which a QRT (Quick Response Team) watches the hearings -- without audio -- in case there is a “disturbance” and they have to storm the courtroom.

Then into a chain-link fence corridor covered in black fabric. Metal wheeling restraint chairs are lined up in a row. Then a mini shingled wooden barn, the kind sold at roadside expos of yard sheds and gazebos, in which sit two metal-detector chairs designed for “non-invasive orifice searches” for contraband. The officer in charge sits on one, but says the chairs must be off, as something in his hip usually sets it to beeping. Then the holding cells – five now, for the five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, underscoring how specific all this is to the crime. The cells are two-roomed trailers, heavily bolted up.

In the first, a chair, a sink, a TV for watching court proceedings. In the interior room, a desk molded into the floor, a cot, a Tupperware containing a prayer mat, cap, and beads, towels, blankets. An arrow on the ground indicates the direction of Mecca. A metal circle welded to the floor is a “hard point,” for shackling. There are no windows but some dotted holes for vents in the back wall.

Then we see the camera-lined courtroom. Chain comes out of the ground by the outer edge of each of the defense side tables, under chairs without wheels, then also under the center of tables at the defense side, an adaptation from when detainees decided to represent themselves. Compliant detainees, we’re told, are not shackled. The wires of computers and microphones run through the furniture so that, our guide says, they cannot be used as a weapon.

We see the soundproof gallery from which we will watch the proceedings on a controversial 40-second audio delay, meant to protect against the disclosure of classified information.

The extreme secrecy surrounding so many aspects of the trial is a constant battle between the government, the defense, and the media. There’s a motion on the docket for this week so secret it doesn’t even have an unclassified name. The judge is hearing arguments this week on whether Nashiri himself will be allowed to know, even in general terms, what it’s about.

The government also takes the position that anything related to detainees’ time in CIA custody is still classified, despite the fact that the program has been acknowledged, ended, and much about it is in the public domain. So everything that the detainees say is presumed classified, since they are in a position to reveal classified information -- hence the 40-second delay. (A defense attorney in the 9/11 case has challenged that stance, as have the ACLU and media organizations.)

There is a big red siren light on the classification authority’s desk in the courtroom to indicate white noise. The light went off mysteriously during hearings in the 9/11 case earlier this year. No one knew who had pressed the button to censor the courtroom. The government later said it was an “original classification authority,” presumably the CIA.

We’re told they no longer have the power to cut the feed. That controversy, along with the discovery of a monitoring device disguised in a smoke detector in the rooms where defense attorneys met with their clients overshadowed this winter’s hearings. (The judge ordered those smoke-detector microphones disabled in February.) Then there was the April revelation that defense emails had been improperly accessed and files disappeared (the government maintains it was a technical glitch, and no emails were read.) The defense will try to bring all of this front and center in the week ahead.

Correction, June 12, 2013: This story previously said Guantanamo Bay's courtroom is housed in the "Expeditionary Legal Center.” In fact it's housed in the "Expeditionary Legal Complex.

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