Guantanamo Bay: A Farcical Waste

By Laura Murchie

A couple weeks ago I traveled to Guantanamo Bay to observe the first week of the pre-trial military commission hearings for detainee Abd al-Rahim Hussein Muhammed al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. The military commissions are racked with incredibly slow processes and constant delays and obstacles that keep the trials moving at a snail’s pace. These delays and all the other small inefficiencies add up to make the whole detention operation at Guantanamo a farcical waste of taxpayer money.

It was clear from the start of my visit that the commission hearings were disorganized and poorly managed. For starters, lead defense counsel Richard Kammen’s luggage didn’t make it onto the plane. The trial team, observers, victim families, and others fly down to the U.S. military base on a chartered plane that costs $90,000 each way. Although there was only one large plane on which everyone would board and all the luggage would go, Kammen’s bag still managed to miss the flight. A small oversight, but indicative of Gitmo’s general MO.

In the courtroom, Judge Vance Spath continually engaged in discussions and arguments that went on much longer than needed, exacerbating the already slow proceedings. A motion regarding an expert witness, which was supposed to be argued in the second week of hearings, was discussed for about an hour. Judge Spath kept reiterating that he’d hear oral arguments next week, yet still allowed both sides to continue advocating their arguments. Judge Spath easily could have stopped the discussions, but didn’t.

What was the point of spending that hour half-arguing a motion when he was going to hear the actual oral arguments next week anyway? It’s likely that these issues are the result of the procedural confusion in the military commission system, which has had its rules re-written twice and still results in endless debates, forcing the judges and everyone else to stumble through the hearings.

Then there are the arbitrary rules. As NGO observers, there are lots of rules that we must follow while on base. Some of them are obvious: don’t take pictures of certain facilities. Others are not. Half way through the week, we were suddenly informed that we could no longer bring metal spiral bound notebooks into the court observation room. We were told in our briefing email prior to the trip that we could bring notebooks, such as a spiral bound, into the courtroom, and at least half of us had been taking notes in the originally approved spiral bound notebook. But now half way through Wednesday’s hearings, those spirals couldn’t be metal. It’s still unclear what the point of that was.

Another arbitrary rule—you better not slouch. All the observers had escorts sitting around us and watching us (again, understandable), but if one of us so much as hunched our shoulders even just to take notes, we feared a reprimand from security. I’m sure our mothers wished we would’ve brought that posture to the dinner table.

While we were often thanked for our work, NGO observers still felt like we were being kept on a tight leash even though the point of our presence is transparency. The rules kept changing on us constantly, and then we would be scolded for not following them. At one point my escort was alarmed that I was getting wifi in the NGO resource tent when I wasn’t supposed to. I wasn’t trying to do anything wrong or be sneaky (I don’t even know if “no wifi for the NGOs” was even a rule). Maybe my phone just has superpowers.

I raise these anecdotes only to show some of the absurdity that permeates these processes and to highlight that allocating money to keep failing systems running is not a good use of taxpayer money. The prison facility at Guantanamo Bay currently costs taxpayers $445 million each year.

President Trump’s recent budget proposal includes new construction projects to support the detention operations, indicating he may be following through on his promise to fill it with “bad dudes.” The detention facilities in their current state have a capacity of about 250 detainees. With only 41 detainees currently there, President Trump has plenty of spots to fill with “bad dudes,” but is still allocating more money to the detention operations.

It could also be that the crumbling infrastructure of Guantanamo, a facility built to be temporary, requires massively expensive upkeep. As General John Kelly (then SOUTHCOM commander, now Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary) once testified, “everything’s more expensive” at Guantanamo because of its remote location. U.S. prisons (whether federal or military), by comparison, routinely handle terrorism suspects at a fraction of the price of Gitmo, and U.S. federal courts outclass the military commissions by drawing on decades of precedent and handling terrorism cases with ease.

Perhaps we should not spend more money on a failing system. Rule of law and ethics aside, isn’t that just bad business?


Published on March 22, 2017


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