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Impressions of Guantanamo

Ben Wizner,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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January 13, 2006

So what’s it like to spend several days as a Guantanamo Bay visitor? Nothing I write will come close to capturing the experience. The Guantanamo of my imagination was a thin strip of beach on the edge of Cuba, with a small military community organized around a detention facility. So it was disorienting to arrive in a place of beauty, with mountain views and lush vegetation, and to realize that it would be possible to spend months in this 45-square-mile base without once encountering any direct evidence of the detainees’ presence here.

Below, I share some impressions from the last few days that didn’t make their way into my previous posts.

  • The motto of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo – the troops responsible for detention and interrogation operations here – is “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.” When JTF members salute each other on the base, it’s common for one to say “Honor Bound,” and the second to reply “To Defend Freedom.” This is jarring at first, then routine; one senses that the recitation has become rote even for the some of the troops, who occasionally mumble the words as they walk past each other. To much of the world, hearing “Guantanamo” and “freedom” so closely associated must sound ironic, but I got the sense that most troops here believe in the mission, even though they’re not responsible for the policy decisions that brought them here.
  • The troops and detainees are not the only ones who have logged significant time at Guantanamo. Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for the Miami Herald, estimates that she’s spent over 400 days here, and I’ve taken to calling her the “Queen of all Guantanamo.” Carol is not just a kind of den mother to the other reporters who pass through here on assignment; she actually answers everyone’s questions, including troops stationed here and, more than once, a newbie lawyer confused about one thing or another. Her stories reflect the breadth of her knowledge, and I’ll be adding the Herald to my bookmarks.
  • I also met an Arabic language interpreter who disclosed that it was his 39th visit to Guantanamo. (He is employed by most of the law firms that represent detainees in habeas corpus proceedings; this time, he was accompanying four attorneys from Debevoise & Plimpton.) The interpreter suggested that if I wanted a quintessential Guantanamo experience, I should walk down to the beach one night, away from any lights, and lie on my back to see the stars. “It’s like a planetarium,” he said. So last night at around 11, I rounded up the other NGO observers, grabbed my Yoko Ono pocket flashlight (see second item), and headed for the beach. I didn’t need the flashlight, and I never lay on my back: there was a full moon, and I probably could have brought my book with me to the beach.
  • This week has been an unexpected reunion for me – or several, really. Avi Cover, the representative of Human Rights First, is a childhood friend whom I literally grew up with, though we’ve seen little of each other in the last fifteen years. Muneer Ahmad, Omar Khadr’s civilian counsel, was a college classmate of mine, and I know for certain I haven’t seem him since 1993. And Colonel Dwight Sullivan, Chief Military Defense Counsel for the Commissions, is a former ACLU lawyer from the Maryland affiliate whom I met several years ago in a bar in Austin. (Sorry, Dwight.)
  • In addition to the mess halls and fast food chains (McDonald’s, Subway), the base has some of its own restaurants and bars. There was excitement in the air at the Windjammer when we arrived for “Taco Tuesday,” and I confess I paid more attention to my plate than to the representative of the Canadian government whom we were dining with. We never made it to the Jerk House, the Jamaican restaurant, nor to the Tiki Bar – which, despite our protests, is off limits to us. (Maybe next time . . . .) We did have dinner at the Bay View, Guantanamo’s most elegant restaurant, where a player piano sits in the lobby, tinkling out Elton John favorites and waiting for someone more insightful than I am to explain how it’s a metaphor for this whole place. I’m not equal to the task.
  • Camp Delta, where the detainees are housed, is divided into several numbered camps, and the most “compliant” detainees reside in Camp 4. There, they are permitted to live more communally, and they can share their meals together and play sports. Recently, basketball was introduced to Camp 4. “Do they play?” I asked Colonel Jeremy Martin. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “There are no Michael Jordans.”
  • The Commission room is fairly small, so it’s impossible to sit far away from the journalists, Commission staff, and members of the prosecution and defense teams who are not involved in the case being heard. During breaks, we chatted with the lawyers for both sides. On Wednesday evening, near the end of a very long day, I overheard one of the prosecutors announce: “Two words for tonight: Red. Stripe.”

And yes, I did see a two-foot iguana, on my very first day.