Angst Over Further Military Commission Delays

I’m in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to observe a pre-trial hearing for Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, al Qaeda’s alleged former Internal Operations Chief. When I began working at Human Rights First as part of a yearlong fellowship with the Next Generation Leaders Program of the McCain Institute, I knew I’d have interesting assignments. But I didn’t expect a trip to Gitmo, so when the opportunity came, I jumped at it.

As a Canadian infantry officer who deployed to Afghanistan, I’ve long been interested in the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay. To me, they show the consequences of policy choices made in haste years ago.

Back in June when I began planning for this trip, I wondered if the hearing would even take place; seven of the nine scheduled in 2015 have been cancelled. But on Sunday I set out. After arriving at the Visitors Center of Andrews Air Force Base I was escorted to the air movements terminal. There I met the Department of Defense personnel who would act as my escorts for the two weeks in Guantanamo.

As I boarded the chartered 737 and looked at the stream of military members and supporting staff getting ready to board the plane, I was shocked at the scale of effort and resources required for this two-week hearing, and what I saw was also only a small portion. There were more than 100 people in the lineup to get on the plane: DOD analysts, interpreters, military members, flight crew, security, and many others.

I thought about the costs that the people were incurring as they try to make these work. Tangible costs like: the chartered 737, salaries, time away from work and per diem meals and expenses. I also thought about the other costs, such as time away from home and their loved ones.

On the flight I talked to prosecutors, linguists, analysts and anyone else that would share their stories. I quickly saw that they were all professionals, trying to right the wrongs that had occurred when their country had been attacked. As we arrived on the island, we embarked and disembarked various vehicles and eventually got on a ferry to our final destination. Even after nearly eight hours in transit door to door I could still see a sense of mission on the faces of almost everyone.

I settled in to my observer tent and got ready for the onslaught of security processing, briefings, and orientations, which took up the remainder of the day. I met with the other NGO observers who had come from all over the United States, and we decided to go for dinner and compare notes in advance of the hearings the next morning.

Then we were informed that the commission had been postponed until Wednesday. It was eight o’clock the night before the hearings were supposed to begin. I could see similar expressions of frustration on many of the Military Commission staff. As many people who have served in the military or government will tell you, there are times when you need to be away from home in order to do your duty. They will also tell you that there’s nothing worse than being away when it feels unnecessary.

But this is standard procedure at Guantanamo, where the few trials that have actually taken place have run into roadblock after roadblock.

I went back to my tent contemplating what would happen the next day. As I looked up at the dark, rubberized ceiling of my tent, I couldn’t help but think how extremely odd the cancellation must be for everyone here, including those supporting the Commission. All these people travelled all this way only to have proceedings postponed at the last minute for reasons that we haven’t been told.

After speaking with those running the Commission, I can say confidently that they are clearly trying their best to make them work despite vast distances and the logistical, legal, and likely personal challenges stacked against them. This process is setting up these professional and committed people for failure. Surely there is a better way.

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Published on July 21, 2015

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