Seven Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Gitmo

After taking detailed notes of my week in Guantanamo Bay, I thought it would be fitting to provide some thoughts and recommendations for future observers and the Office of Military Commissions (OMC). While unfortunately there were only three hours of hearings, nonetheless there are a few things I wish I had known before I went. If I were to go to Guantanamo as an observer again, here are a few of the things I would do differently:

1. I would request, and the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) should provide, a schedule for observers before arrival. This schedule should include time allocated to an orientation briefing to the military commission composition and organizations at Guantanamo, and meetings with the prosecution, defense, and manager of the military commissions logistics, in addition to the scheduled hearings. If the schedule does not include these meetings, ask for them.

Observers should be leery of time suckers, such as large gaps between activities and repetitive travel. We often went to breakfast an hour earlier than everyone else only to wait at the tents for next steps. Other times we have to go back and forth across the base multiple times to pick up documents or other minor items that could have been brought with us with a little additional planning or information about our schedule. These factors left us with less time to report back to our HQ’s and probe the activities of the military commission. If the OMC wants to give observers the best and most transparent trip to Guantanamo possible, scheduling events ahead of time would be helpful.

2.  Ask for specific items to be contained in your briefing package ahead of time. Specifically, the OMC should provide more useful and precise maps, times that dining facilities open and close, and when the NAVEX (the center where you can buy supplies) opens and closes.

Your escorts will have cell phones that work on the island and can be dialed from the United States. Ask your escorts to include these numbers in your briefing package, or that they be given to your prior to your departure so that your office or your loved ones can reach you in the case of an emergency back home. Your cell phone will not work at Guantanamo.

3. Request your internet to be set up immediately. At $150 per week, you want to ensure you’re getting the most out of it. In my case it was set up within 24 hours, but many observers had to wait several days for the internet to be activated on their computers, which unnecessarily impedes observers’ ability to write about their experiences and report back to their organizations.

4. Reach out to other NGO representatives. The OMC provided us the emails, names and organizations of other NGO observers that would be at the hearing, but not until three days before we departed. It was almost too late to be actionable. Ask for this information earlier and make contact with your colleagues via email, phone or Skype.

5. Talk to everyone you can while you are there to counter the isolating factors of the schedule and location of your quarters. Since you are in separate quarters from the media and almost everyone else, ensure you reach out to them. Many people are willing to share their experiences and stories, including commission staff. While I made an effort to do this, I wish I had approached officials more frequently in the meal halls and other common areas.

6. Your escorts are there to help, but if you don’t ask, you won’t get. If it will help you gain a better understanding of the commissions, do not be afraid to ask your escorts questions or for specific meetings, items or other materials. They will oblige as long as the request is reasonable. In that vein, don’t be afraid to push a bit.

7. Bring a blanket. When people tell you the tents you sleep in are really cold, they aren’t exaggerating.

While I and many other observers were disappointed with the delays and down time we experienced and the short duration of the military commission hearings we did see, I am convinced there is value in observers attending these hearings.  If for no other reason, observers are able to communicate perspectives that the commission cannot. For example, the fact that we spent not more than three hours in hearings during our week in Guantanamo is a valuable thing for the public, and decision makers in the United States Government, to know. The recommendations above have been conveyed to the OMC.


Published on July 29, 2015


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