About two dozen journalists made the trip for the long-awaited resumption of hearings in the military trial of five alleged 9/11 conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Due to the relatively small number of journalists – for what was once billed as “the trial of the century” – I was happily guaranteed daily access to the courtroom.
After a three-hour flight, we approached our landing in Guantánamo Bay. I first spotted a small naval ship passing through the deep blue Caribbean waters and misty air. Then rocky cliffs, rugged green terrain and winding dirt roads came into view. A lone mountain was visible in the background. As we touched down, the flight captain welcomed us. “Have a good time here in Cuba,” he said.
Upon hearing the captain’s greeting, my thoughts and prayers immediately connected with the 779 detainees whose landing on the Naval Base was not nearly as beautiful or fortunate. They weren’t able to enjoy the beauty of the land and sea because, in transfer, they were subjected to sensory deprivation, a form of torture. The detainees arrived in Guantánamo wearing orange jumpsuits, black hoods, and goggles, leaving them dazed and confused as to their whereabouts.
On this trip, once the first-time visitors received our badges, we moved into the Media Operations Center, “the Moc,” and then into our residential tents in an area of the base known as Camp Justice. Bright orange barriers and chain-link, razor-wire fences fill the grounds. A variety of military personnel – I recall seeing Navy, Army and Marines – walk the grounds. The public affairs staff who welcomed us were exceptionally kind and helpful in assisting with the logistics and answering our questions. After a brief visit to the local grocery store (I needed sunblock!), I had lunch with a young soldier deployed to Guantánamo. “This is a good place to work,” she explained, “because you get weekends off.” If you’re in a combat zone, she reminded me, you’re on 24/7.
At 6:00 p.m., there were consecutive press conferences with the defense team and chief prosecutor of the military commissions. Lawyers took turns speaking at one end of a long table. About a dozen journalists, including myself, sat around the table and asked questions. Other journalists, along with representatives from non-governmental organizations, sat in chairs that lined the edges of the room. At least two news crews shot video: Fox News and the Associated Press. I recorded the conversation and took photos of the attorneys. There were lively exchanges about military commission procedures, especially related to secrecy, transparency and fairness. One pressing question: since the defendants, if convicted, will face the death penalty, should evidence of their one-time detention and torture in C.I.A. black sites be admissible as mitigating evidence? Army Capt. Jason D. Wright, a lawyer for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, passionately reminded us that his client faced “heinous abuse” during his detention. (Capt. Wright is pictured above left at Sunday's press conference.) Mr. Mohammed “was brought to the brink of death 183 times” in being waterboarded, he said.
This week I feel privileged to be immersed in a top-notch pool of reporters. Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald has traveled to Guantánamo at least a hundred times in a decade of covering proceedings here. She helps organize the press corps, maintains a lively spirit in the Media Center, keeps us well fed and mentors the young journalists like myself who are visiting Guantánamo for the first time. Her presence is invaluable. As news happens, she fires away on twitter @carolrosenberg. Her preview of the court hearings is posted online.
The 9/11 trial, delayed since May 5, resumes today. For the morning session, I will be stationed in the media center, where I will live tweet (#GTMOJesuit) my observations and reflections on what unfolds in the courtroom. The defendants will appear before Army Col. James L. Pohl, the chief of the military commissions judiciary, at 9:00 a.m. EDT. In the afternoon, I will be seated in the courtroom, alongside family members who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, to watch the proceedings.
Luke Hansen, S.J.