I went to Guantanamo Bay to watch the Khalid Sheikh Mohammad hearing, and what I saw shocked me

Behind the scenes at Gitmo.
Behind the scenes at Gitmo.
Image: Reauters/Brennan Linsley
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On the afternoon of Friday, July 22, I was standing in the kitchen of a law firm in Dallas. It was the last day of the firm’s summer associate program, and recruitment had planned a “cookie break” to send us off. The large floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Dallas skyline.

“What are your plans for the rest of the summer?” a young associate asked me.

“I’m actually going to Guantanamo Bay—tomorrow,” I replied.

This response was met with confusion. I explained how in Guantanamo Bay there were occasionally pre-trial hearings for the 9/11 perpetrators in front of the military commission. The military commissions require non-military observers, and I was going to attend a hearing in an observatory capacity on behalf of a non-governmental organization (NGO).

I had no expectations prior to my trip. I knew who the defendants were (Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and four others), and I knew what they had done—and what had been done to them. But beyond that, I knew virtually nothing. Our group consisted of myself and six others from various NGOs and five family members of the 9/11 victims, who were each allowed to bring one guest. One woman from our group had started an NGO called “9/11 Victims’ Families for Peace.” She had signed up to attend the hearings as a victim’s family member and had been on the waiting list for eight years before she got her chance to go for the first time. This was now her second trip.

The next day, around 40 of us were transported on a C-17 military cargo plane and arrived on the island around 11pm. From the landing strip we were shuttled to the waterfront, where a small boat carried the passengers across the bay. We arrived at our living quarters, Camp Justice, just before midnight.

Camp Justice is an experiment in not caring. There are rows of canvas tents in an area that looks like the surface of the moon (or maybe more like rural Arizona). The tents could theoretically fit twelve people, but in our case, we had just five in our women’s NGO tent, and two in the men’s. The tents are kept extremely cold so that iguanas or spiders don’t wander in—which is apparently a legitimate fear—and have cots separated by plywood boards. The bathroom tents are a good walk away, and they have no water-temperature control, one mirror, and a few tarps strung up that provide no privacy at all. There is no internet connectivity at the camp, and there are only two places that wifi is available on the island—O’Kelly’s, one of the only restaurants, and the Jerk Chicken Hut.

To call it desolate would be an understatement.

Guantanamo Bay is a panoply of contradictions. It is military base representing freedom and justice that is situated on a less-than-welcoming communist island. Now it is an island lost in time, perched in the recesses of the American imagination. In one afternoon you can drive by Camp X-Ray, where the detainees were first brought after they were captured, and then swing by a gift store and pick up t-shirts, shot glasses, and a stuffed iguana. There is barbed wire next to beaches. The bottled water, essential to survival in Camp Justice, is kept in former mortuaries. What will happen to this place? The fate of the 76 prisoners and the camp remains uncertain.

The hearings began on Monday. There is one courthouse on the island, which is within walking distance from Camp Justice. During our tour, we learned that the entire courthouse and the surrounding trailers that served as offices and bathrooms were all “expeditionary,” meaning that they were intended to be temporary. But the United States has occupied a portion of Cuba since 1898, these 9/11 detainees had been on the island since 2004, and the military commission did not anticipate a trial even beginning for at least three more years.

We walked to the observatory space at the back of the court room. We were separated from the five “brothers,” as they called themselves, by soundproof glass, and they were not physically far from us. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who is known as the mastermind behind the attacks, sat in the first chair. He was short, maybe 5’3”, and had a large beard that had grown out. I noticed that it had been dyed red. “Why?” I asked. “It’s to emulate the prophet Mohammad,” said Colleen Kelly, an informed NGO representative on the trip.

The other four detainees sat in chairs behind him. The hearings were a chance for the five brothers to converse with one another freely, watch videos on their counsel’s computer, and discuss their cases with their trial teams. Some of them came in each day wearing a shawl with “PALESTINE” written on it and an image of the golden dome of Jerusalem. When it got cold in the courtroom, they would don camouflage robes, rumored to be because they saw themselves as “brothers in combat.”

In our capacity as NGO observers, we had the opportunity to meet with members of the prosecution team as well as various defense counsel. We all dressed up to meet brigadier general Mark Martins in the press room in the old hangar. He walked in wearing fatigues. At 6’6”, he would have been intimidating even without knowing he was the chief prosecutor. He sat down and methodically went through a variety of the motions they expected to cover that week. He also requested that nothing he said be attributed to him publicly.

That weekend, we were invited to an island townhome where two separate defense teams were having a barbecue for the media and observers. Upon walking in, we were immediately greeted by men and women who were barefoot, in jeans, and had smiles on their faces. They offered us name tags and provided index cards on which we could write questions we had that we may not have felt comfortable to ask out loud. Each detainee is provided with one “learned counsel,” who is a civilian lawyer who has significant experience with capital cases, and one military counsel. In more than one case, when the military transferred the military counsel for a given detainee to a new case, the military counsel retired from the military in order to continue representing the detainee as a civilian.

“The theme for the defense side is rule of law,” explained General John Baker, the attorney who was recently appointed to oversee all the separate defense teams. Speaking to the defense counsels, there was a strong undercurrent that they found purpose in the defense almost solely because of the torture performed on the detainees. “I won’t say that’s the only reason I turned down a position with the prosecution and accepted one with the defense,” one military counsel told me, “but the torture played a very large role in my decision.”

If you weren’t someone who had been actively following the hearings, the nuts and bolts could have been difficult to understand. This included the prosecution’s attempt to admit all 2,976 death certificates of the victims of 9/11 into evidence and an animated discussion about where exactly we all were.

“Let me tell you a secret, Judge,” said counsel Michael Schwartz. “We’re not in Cuba: We’re in America. When you arrive at the airport here on the island, and you’ve forgotten your passport, the gate agent will quietly say to you, ‘Why don’t you go to the Windjammer and have some dinner, and we’ll figure out the paper work.’”

Our flight back home consisted of the main players—the judge, the defense teams, the prosecution—all in “life is good” t-shirts, shorts, and sunglasses, chatting and laughing with one another. Standing on the barge, pushing away, it felt as if the entire thing was an act—the suits, the motions, the manners, the formalities. They had all flown in for the show, and now that this scene was over, they were all fleeing the set. The island was a world in and of itself, concealed from America and the rest of the globe.