Tag Archives: Guantanamo Bay

Terribly and terrifyingly normal: killing time in Guantanamo Bay

(Taylor Hall/MEDILL NSJI)

(Taylor Hall/MEDILL NSJI)

You’re going to Guantanamo.

There’s a war court hearing, you’re a journalism student and you’ve been selected to go.

For years you have associated this word – Guantanamo – with torture, and a queasy tightening in your chest. The physical reality of Guantanamo, the place, never really occurred to you before this moment. It always seemed light-years away, physically and metaphysically.

But there’s no time to process this or critically assess any of the assumptions you carry because now there’s an onslaught of forms to fill out, and you need to make a photocopy of your passport by noon or you won’t be guaranteed a spot on the chartered military flight.

“The Defense Department will facilitate media access to the maximum extent possible, in an effort to encourage open reporting and promote transparency,” one form reads.

Six paragraphs down: “the Department of Defense is the sole release authority for all military information contained in all media.”

Later: “Failure to comply with these ground rules could result in permanent expulsion… of the parent news organization from further access to GTMO or to military commissions.”

The rush of rules and dizzying down-is-up rationales has only just begun.

Hurriedly you read it and pen your initials to the 13 pages, effectively forfeiting your ability to talk to certain people (detainees, Haitian and Jamaican contract workers, others) and to take certain photos (of detainees, military personnel, gates, power supplies, security measures) in the name of national security. I should read this over more carefully later, and maybe with a lawyer, you think, knowing you won’t.

You have a week to prepare, so you read up on the detainee’s case, meet with Pentagon defense lawyers, study the history of the military commissions, watch a documentary about the detention camps, and buy some bug spray.

You brush up on the history. The U.S. scored the land for the Navy base in a deal with Cuba in 1903 for $2,000 in gold a year, and still pays a pittance in rent. Washington also made sure only it could terminate the agreement.

Then came the 9/11 attacks, the “war on terrorism” and the Navy base became home to the infamous Joint Task Force prison camps, which opened in 2002 to house those captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In the early feverish days, there were more than 600 prisoners held there. Now the camps are down to 116 prisoners, the last of whom arrived in 2008.

Too soon the day arrives, and you’re waiting with your luggage in line at Andrews Air Force Base, not fully grasping that the men and women chatting freely in line with you wearing khaki shorts will soon transform into uniformed military legal teams, inevitably unavailable for comment.

Media board the flight first and sit cloistered in the back. You sit next to Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter who has covered Guantanamo longer than anyone else.

She is working on the flight, striking up conversations. You listen.

Upon landing you are introduced to your military handlers for the week. They are white men in their thirties with young children back home. Most served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are new to Guantanamo and will be here for nine months. They seem like good people, as military guards who read over your shoulder and decide which of your pictures to delete each day go.

You and your media colleagues work from a windowless room in an old converted warehouse where you assume (correctly, you think) that everything you say and do is monitored. There’s a key code to the door that only your military handlers know.

They give you a press badge emblazoned with a bold “M” and tell you to never take it off, even when you’re running or smoking or at dinner (all of which are necessarily accompanied by military handlers).

You ponder the Foucauldian panopticon nature of things for both detainees and media here, and reflect on the Joint Task Force Guantanamo motto: “Safe. Humane. Legal. Transparent.”

Your guards are, practically speaking, inescapable, but at least they are nice. You know they are just doing their job.

In a turn that comes unexpected to you (but not to Carol Rosenberg) you are informed Sunday evening that the military hearings you planned to cover Monday-Friday have been put on hold until Wednesday. You are given no explanation for the delay.

In the meantime, your military handlers scramble to find you things to do.

You ask to see the detention camps. The guards suggest snorkeling.

You visit many parts of Guantanamo in your non-commission downtime: the radio station, the windmills that power the self-sustaining base, the old lighthouse.

You marvel at the incredibly unremarkable quotidian nature of this small town base – surreal precisely because it is so normal.

You expected some sort of unsettling psychic footprint from the terrorist masterminds and torture incidence rate. Instead you eat fajitas and drink craft beer at the base’s Irish bar, O’Kelly’s. In your notes one night, you write that the dining experience was “average.”

The next morning you visit the original detention center that was tossed together to jail the first detainees back in 2002. Camp X-Ray, as it was known, was closed in April 2002 following outcry over human rights violations.

You are shown the old dog kennels, which were the only constructions in the camp with air conditioning. You walk through rows upon rows of empty chicken wire cages, once used to house America’s most wanted. You are told that nearly 300 men once lived in these 8 foot by 8 foot cells, and were confined for all but 30 minutes of recreation time each day. You explore the original interrogation and interview buildings. Like the other facilities in Camp X-Ray, they are now completely defunct and overgrown, but someone has moved all of the furniture from the small wooden buildings into one room, and now all the rotting chairs are idly stacked and overturned. You can’t help but wonder what conversations were had in these chairs. You pick rusty bullet casings out of the dry ground. When you ask about them, you are told they were probably used to teargas detainees.

You leave and go straight to McDonald’s for a McGriddle and a large iced caramel latte. The drive from the infamous detention camps to the familiar golden arches takes five minutes. There is nothing remarkable or ceremonious about your passage through these overlapping normal and (to you) non-normal worlds.

On Wednesday morning the hearings commence.

You’re given a choice. You can sit in court with pen and paper and watch in person from a glass observer box while audio is piped in on a 40-second delay. Or you can sit in the media hangar and watch the delayed feed on TV and have access to your laptop and the Internet.

You choose to go see the court.

It’s set up like a regular courthouse, except you can’t bring anything with an on/off switch inside, and there are chains on the ground near the defense tables for shackling prisoners down should they become ‘difficult.’ There is a cartoonishly large red light next to the judge, which you have been told could light up at any time if top-secret matters are accidentally discussed and they need to cut audio in the observer room where the media sit.

According to the Military Commissions Act of 2009, certain aspects of the Constitution do not apply in this court.

During the hearing you see Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi, alleged former senior commander of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The Mosul, Iraq native is accused of masterminding attacks on American, Canadian, German, British, Estonian and Norwegian forces.
He is also accused of ordering an attack on a medical helicopter attempting to recover casualties from the battlefield, providing a reward to the Taliban for assassinating a civilian United Nations worker, and destroying historic Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
He is wearing clean white traditional clothes and his beard is long and grey. His voice is deep and when he speaks he sounds collected, dignified, well educated. You hear another reporter describe him as “almost elegant.”

You have studied his track record of war crimes carefully. Shouldn’t you be registering some sort of visceral response as a result of being physically near someone allegedly responsible for such gratuitous cruelties? You don’t.

The hearing is a dizzying blur in legalese: you learn that the prosecution dumped new evidence on the defense team Sunday night that raised potential conflict of interest issues. In the middle of the hearing, Hadi announces he wants new temporary legal representation.

At one point, the judge and defense realize that they’ve been reading from different versions of the Commissions manual. Eventually, the military judge postpones the proceedings indefinitely until everything can be sorted out. You understand now how these things have managed to drag on for many years, with no end in sight.

With hearings canceled, there is even more time to kill.

You attend a “South of the Border” themed all-you-can-eat dinner event. A group of teenaged mariachis from Orlando performs. Someone at your table brings up how good the sailing is here this time of year.

As you drink a margarita, you remind yourself that six hours ago you sat within earshot of someone who took direct orders from Osama bin Laden.

Later, you get to see the holding areas where they keep the prisoners before they appear in court. There are body cavity searching chairs, which look sort of like grey plastic thrones and restraint chairs, which look like a cross between a hospital gurney and a straight jacket. The rooms are a cloying yellow that immediately gives you a headache. When you ask who chose the color, you are told that yellow is calming.

There is a grill outside. You ask if they grill often.

“We have to be here 24/7, so…” your tour guide says. You wonder how long it takes for Guantanamo’s non-normal and normal worlds to completely collapse in a way that is routinized and totally palatable.

As you board your return flight the next day you wonder – given all of the institutional roadblocks – how you could ever produce meaningful coverage that adequately reflects this place’s complexities and contradictions in a way that amounts to more than a been-there, done-that dispatch from a place where the U.S. appears to have no foreseeable exit strategy and most of the country seems to have moved on from.

Soon it will be time to chat with the men and women in their polo shirts and shorts who couldn’t talk to you when you were all in Guantanamo.


In this installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill students who recently returned from a reporting trip to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay take you inside of a military commission courtroom — with words, that is. Find out what it’s like to be in (and report from) such a courtroom to help you get ready to cover a commission yourself.

The two faces of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – The U.S. may have opened an embassy in Havana, Cuba, but 500 miles away at the Guantanamo Bay naval base you wouldn’t know that anything had changed.

Guantanamo Bay, with its small-town feel, is a major naval base as well as home to the infamous detention center for captives in the war on terror. Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, operations have continued on as usual, with no plans to change. In fact, experts say closing the base would take decades. Meanwhile, the gift shop still has Fidel Castro bobble heads for sale.

“There is no impact on the base at this point,” said Kelly Wirfel, the public affairs officer for the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. “We are continuing to execute our mission here.”

In essence, the naval base is an island within the island, separated from Cuba and relatively unaffected by changes in diplomatic relations. Whatever changes are going on in Washington and Havana, daily life doesn’t show any signs of changing yet. Global Post spent a week on the base finding out how the historic diplomatic shift would affect residents’ lives.

At Radio GTMO, the local radio station, the maxim is “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard,” and there are no plans to alter it. The $25 Fidel Castro bobbleheads for sale in the radio’s gift shop aren’t going away anytime soon — the sailors running the station just placed a new order. The North East Gate, which used to allow travel to and from Cuba, will remain closed, and the mines surrounding the base will stay in the ground.

“As the US and Cuba normalize relations, two big Cuban demands remain: ending the embargo and giving back Guantanamo,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither is likely before the 2016 presidential election, given the Republican field and the role Congress must play.”

But she stressed that the challenges to the Obama administration’s attempts to close the military prison are likely only a short-term hurdle.

“In a post-Castro brothers’ Cuba, negotiations to return the territory are possible and even likely, with precedents around the world,” O’Neil said. She pointed to the transfer of the Panama Canal from US control to Panamanian control as an example; that transition took more than 20 years.

The 45 square miles of land occupied by the Guantanamo Bay base have been leased from Cuba since 1903. The original lease agreement gave the land to the US “for the time required,” which effectively means the US can take its sweet time leaving. The US pays just over $4,000 a year in rent, though the Castros still refuse to cash the checks, because that would serve to legitimize the current occupation of Guantanamo. The Cuban embassy did not return calls about whether the Cuban government planned to start cashing the checks.

In January 1961, shortly before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations as Fidel Castro declared himself in favor of Marxist ideology and began mass jailings and executions of Cuban dissidents. Then, in 1964, Castro cut off the water supply, forcing the base to become completely self-sufficient.

Guantanamo Bay is first and foremost a naval base, in operation since the land was acquired over a century ago. It has docks capable of accommodating ships as large as a small aircraft carrier, and facilities catering to the families of soldiers stationed at the base.

“We’re a logistical hub so lots of the ships that are doing operations in the Caribbean pull in here to be refueled, resupplied, whatever it is that they might need,” Wirfel said. The base has also supported humanitarian missions, such as taking in a massive influx of Haitian refugees and migrants in the early 1990s as a part of Operation Sea Signal.

Twenty years later, all but 28 of the refugees have left. The base is home to a mix of service members and their families, civilians, and third-country nationals, mostly Jamaicans and Filipinos who come to the base for work.

In total, nearly 4,000 people live on the base, including more than 500 spouses and children.

The naval base has the feel of a humid small town that could be anywhere on the Gulf Coast. There’s McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. The local high school’s team name is the Pirates. There is a movie playing every night but Wednesday at the Lyceum, a stadium-style outdoor theater, complete with a concession stand that sells popcorn, hot dogs, and soft drinks for a dollar each.

The movie theater is where you will find Jose Polics, 18, many nights of the week. He has lived in Guantanamo Bay his entire life. “It’s a wonderful experience,” said Polica. “The best part is that the Gitmo community has treated me so nice.”

Polica recently graduated from W.T. Sampson High School, the only one on the base. He graduated with only a handful of other students. Though he says he is interested in going into a job having to do with IT, he has no desire to leave the base. “I consider Gitmo my home,” he said.

The hippest place to be each night is the Jerk House, a Jamaican restaurant that offers the most highly coveted service for most residents of Guantanamo Bay: Wi-Fi.

The base is notorious for its terrible and outrageously expensive internet service. Visiting journalists pay $150 per week for just one hardwire hook-up with connectivity speeds that are reminiscent of pre-broadband days.

Like moths to a streetlight, the free Wi-Fi creates a melting pot of the community outside the Jerk House. In one evening reporters were joined by a crew of FBI witnesses who were scheduled to testify in an on going military commission.

“It’s my first time here,” said one of the witnesses who had helped collect evidence overseas. The team was sporting sunburns and raving about their time on the beach.

Nearby, at the officer’s club, an IT technician joined a table full of reporters. He said that he comes down to Guantanamo about once a month from Virginia Beach to help broadcast the military commissions to viewing rooms on military bases stateside. He has a couple of boats in the marina and offered to take the group sailing on one of the many down days that come with reporting on the base.

For most, entertainment can be hard to come by in the isolated naval base. The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Department tries to solve this problem. The organization makes sure there is something to do each day of the week, from kayaking to a “South of the Border” celebration, featuring an adolescent mariachi band flown in from nearby Florida.

Despite all the programming, residents of the base tend to get island fever.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they could take a nice little trip to Cuba?

“I think the consensus is that everyone here would love that. But there is no talk of that, and if it does happen, it will certainly be sometime down the road,” Wirfel said. “I hope I’m here for that.”

There are two sides to Guantanamo. On one side is a regular naval base whose mission is “to guarantee the success of a myriad of strategic operations by providing exemplary support to our tenants, government agencies, and allies,” Wirfel said. On the other side are the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camps. Separating them are roadblocks and barriers manned by armed guards.

One of the few things the two sides have in common is the 17-mile border they share with Cuba.

A barbed-wire fence and a minefield surround the base. Marines are posted at watchtowers 24 hours a day. Even the local radio station is designed not to broadcast past the border of the base.

But the edge of the base is not completely impermeable.

Since 1995, high-ranking military personnel from each side have held monthly “fence-line meetings.” The site of the meeting alternates, one month in an old Marine barracks on the US side, the next month in a beat-up Cuban customs house.

“The captain of the base, Captain (David) Culpepper, meets with the Cuban Frontier Brigade, which is their equivalent to the military on that side,” Wirfel said. “It’s a very professional meeting. There is never anything political talked about. It’s all administrative in matter.”

The goal of the meetings is to keep the border peaceful. Neither side wants an inadvertent flare-up from a misunderstanding.

“As you can imagine, when you have guards standing on the fence line face-to-face with each other, it’s important that there’s some communication as to what’s happening on our side and what’s happening on your side,” said Wirfel. The reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Wirfel said, would not affect the monthly meetings, which have been going on for 20 years.

In addition to the monthly get-togethers, there is a surprising annual joint military effort at cooperation between two countries that have not gotten along for decades.

“Every year we also do a bilateral exercise with them,” Wirfel said. This year they cooperated to fight an imaginary fire on the fence line. The participants jumped back and forth across the heavily guarded border, at one point carrying a person with a simulated injury across the border into enemy territory.

A short drive away, less than five miles from the naval docks, sits a side of Guantanamo Bay that reminds visitors and service members that this is a deployment site rather than a traditional military base.

Following 9/11, the Department of Defense decided to begin using the base as a detention center for those captured overseas in the newly declared War on Terror.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees arrived at Camp X-Ray, a facility made up of chain-link enclosures that resembled dog cages more than jail cells. Since then, there have been several new detention facilities constructed, a few of which resemble standard federal correction lock-ups. In total, more than 780 detainees have passed through the island-based detention center. Today, 116 remain.

Many of the guards who work in the detention centers are military police and live in long canvas tents that look like massive drainage pipes sliced in half. The oceanside tents are kept heavily air-conditioned to dissuade the local iguanas and banana rats from seeking shelter during the blistering-hot days.

Not even a mile down the road is Camp Delta, home to the people allegedly responsible for orchestrating the greatest terrorist attack ever on American soil. This prison is effectively an island within Guantanamo, which itself is an island of US control on the island of Cuba.

The Joint Task Force, with members from all four branches of the US military, runs the detention center. The group in charge is called Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF Guantanamo. On its website, the mission is clear: “JTF Guantanamo conducts safe, humane, legal, and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission.”

That mission remains unchanged, regardless of the reestablished diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

“Nothing has changed for us,” said Captain Chris Scholl, public affairs officer for JTF Guantanamo. “It is business as usual.”

In the end, it may be far too much to expect instantaneous changes at Guantanamo. The base acts a tidal pool, collecting debris and detritus from more than a century of history: the Spanish-American War, the US colonial period, the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and now the aftermath of 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror.” Yet at the same time, the tortured politics surrounding Guantanamo have given rise to a relic; a fossilized collection of odd legal, political, and cultural circumstances that the world is unlikely to see again.

Gitmo detainees cannot be charged with conspiracy, federal appeals court says

WASHINGTON – On July 27, the U.S. military appealed a federal appeals court’s decision to toss out a conspiracy conviction against Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary and detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the ruling could jeopardize key terrorism prosecutions that are currently underway.

In a 2-to-1 decision this June, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the judgment against Ali al-Bahlul, who was convicted in a military commission proceeding of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. The court found that offenses like conspiracy, which are not recognized as international war crimes, must be tried in domestic courts, where evidentiary standards are higher and proceedings are public.

This goes against the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009, signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.

The court found that “it was beyond Congress’ power,” Chief Prosecutor Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said at a media briefing, “to make conspiracy, inchoate conspiracy, triable by a military commission.”

Martins was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba earlier this month for another detainee’s pretrial hearings.

When the military appealed last month, it asked the full court, as opposed to a three-judge panel, to rehear the case.

The military argued in its appellate brief that the court should hear the appeal, in part, because its decision overrode the authority and judgment of two presidents and two Congresses.

The ruling dismissed relevant Supreme Court concurring opinions, including Justice Kennedy’s note in Hamdan I that Congress, not the court, is in a better position to determine the “validity of the conspiracy charge.”

The military also pointed out that those who conspired to kill President Abraham Lincoln and the World War II Nazi saboteurs, for example, were convicted in military commissions.

In this case, the accused published various recruiting materials, including a video celebrating the bombing of the USS Cole and transcriptions of the 9/11 pilots’ “martyr wills,” which are propaganda statements released by terrorists before a suicide mission.

Bahlul’s only regret — not being a key player in the 9/11 attacks — stated explicitly in the military’s appellate brief, was not disputed.

In 2008, the military commission sentenced him to life in prison. The U.S. Court of Military Commission Review affirmed the finding in 2011 before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it in June.

“There is a pretty strong principle that we don’t litigate stuff ahead of the judge,” Brig. Gen. Martins said, confirming that the Court’s decision would be an issue in upcoming military hearings, though he would not give any specifics.

In 2014, Martins charged Abd al Hadi al Iraqi with conspiracy to commit acts of terror. Hadi is considered a high-value detainee, and is accused of planning and ordering attacks that killed at least eight U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

Hadi’s pre-trial hearings are scheduled to resume in August but a trial date has not been set. Martins said he did not know whether or not Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, the judge presiding over Hadi’s case, would wait to apply the Bahlul finding until after the appeals process is final.

While both Bahlul and Hadi are being held in Guantanamo, President Obama is reportedly in the final stages of closing it down, as he promised to do in his campaign for president back in 2007.




The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition // OPSEC 101

In the third installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill NSJI reporters Taylor Hall and Ezra Kaplan give you a crash course in OPSEC, or operations security, as it pertains to reporting from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.  Learn what OPSEC and how to navigate it in the course of your Guantanamo coverage.

The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition // INSIDE ‘TENT CITY’

In the second installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill National Security Specialization students who recently returned from a reporting trip to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay discuss the so-called “Tent City” where journalists live during their brief stays on post.

War crime court proceedings grind to a halt in Guantanamo Bay

Flags wave at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Abd al Hadi al Iraqi is scheduled to appear before a military commission Wednesday. (Matt Yurus/Medill NSJI)

Flags wave at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Abd al Hadi al Iraqi is scheduled to appear before a military commission Wednesday. (Matt Yurus/Medill NSJI)

GUANTANAMO NAVY BASE, CUBA — The July commission hearings for accused war criminal Abd al Hadi al Iraqi halted abruptly this week after the defendant decided he did not trust his assigned Pentagon Lawyers. Not a single one of the motions set to be argued was resolved and the judged scheduled another round of pre-trial hearings set to start on Sept. 21.

“We’re making incremental progress. I won’t in any way try to say that what we’re doing is setting land-speed records,” said Brigadier Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor for military commissions.

The hearings were planned for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from July 20 to July 31, but were delayed two days. According to the defense, the prosecution turned over new discovery only two hours before the first scheduled session, forcing the delay.

When asked the reasons behind the delayed exchange of information, Martins said only, “I will tell you we take our discovery obligation very seriously. We are producing it as we find it and prepare it. We’re doing our jobs.”

That new evidence would be at the heart of the limited proceedings when they finally got under way on Wednesday morning.

Hadi, an Iraqi national, sat in the courtroom dressed in white traditional clothing and paid close attention and took notes as the judge summarized what had transpired since the last hearings. He faces charges of a host of war crimes and is allegedly responsible for the deaths of at least eight military service members, punishable by life in prison.

Before arguments began, military commission judge Navy Capt. J.K. Waits questioned the defense lawyers. “I want to ask if [Hadi] wants to be represented by you before you stand up and argue on his behalf,” he said.

Hadi responded, through an interpreter, “Today, yes.”

Less than four hours later his answer would change.

“I do not want to confer with Col. Thomas Jasper or Maj. Ben Stirk, at least temporarily, until I have an option for an independent counsel,” said Hadi. ”I don’t want them to represent me at this time”

His change of heart stemmed from a revelation in court that his original lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, was never properly released from representing Hadi. Gleason currently represents Sept. 11 defendant, Mustafa al Hawsawi, meaning that on paper he is representing two men in the military commissions.

In addition to representing both men, Jasper said in court that a part of the evidence being used against Hadi was a conversation between Gleason’s two defendants while they were in the Guantanamo detention camps.

Hadi said that he never approved of Gleason being taken off of his case, instead he said, “I was insisting that he stay with me.”

Judge Waits said that he understood Hadi’s concerns and that the issue with Gleason should be resolved, as Hadi requested, with a meeting between the detainee and Gleason.

In the meantime, the judge suggested that they continue on with the case since neither Jasper nor Stirk was conflicted as Hadi’s attorneys. To which Hadi responded that he had lost trust in the entirety of his legal representation.

The snag in the hearings caught most of the courtroom off guard. After taking a recess followed by a meeting in chambers with the defense and prosecution, the judge announced, “Regrettably we’re in a little bit of a limbo.”

Navy base in Cuba houses one-of-a-kind music collection

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — This isolated U.S. Navy base has many facilities and services to make life comfortable for the service members and their families stationed here.

That includes a radio and TV broadcast facility holding more than 22,000 reel-to-reel and vinyl records, valued at as much as $2 million.

But it’s not just any old music collection. This one, which includes a reel-to-reel of the Beatles anthology album and a recording of the “Good Morning, Vietnam” soundtrack, is rumored to house recordings that were never formally released.

“I believe this is one of the largest, if not the largest, collection in the Armed Services Network,” said Kelly Wirfel, base spokeswoman.

Index card

Alphabetized on wooden shelves, the records sit in square cutouts with their album track lists catalogued on index cards in nearby filing cabinets. Broken souvenirs, Radio GTMO apparel and other electronic equipment surround the treasure.

The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service reportedly last appraised the collection in 2007 and found that the only way to yield the maximum value of $2 million would be to auction the records and reels individually. But that’s impossible, since they’re government property, Wirfel said.

Radio GTMO, which has been on the island since the 1940s and in its present location since 1964, is the only source of American radio for American personnel on the base. It offers three stations — two play modern tunes and classic rock while the other is reserved for talk radio and news. The signal stops at the northeast gate, the entrance point to Castro’s Cuba.

The stations mainly play digitized songs, but the vinyl does come out for special events.

“We’ll play vinyl records during the radiothon (fundraiser) because we’ll get some really old requests,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Outzen, a disc jockey for the station.GMV copy

“I’ve heard that Armed Forces Network would like those records back to be archived and put into a museum,” he added.

Wirfel confirmed that the military is working hard to digitize the collection with the intent of turning it over to AFRTS.

Adrian Cronauer, the Air Force DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in the classic film “Good Morning,Vietnam,” said the collection is a “tremendous resource, and it should be put in a collection somewhere, a museum, a record company.”

Radio GTMO also broadcasts television programming from the U.S., and was reportedly the first Navy television outlet to have live studio color capabilities. Jarod Collins, a petty officer and engineer at Radio GTMO, said the television signal comes in from satellites positioned in Europe on a six-hour delay.

“So instead of Game of Thrones coming on at 9 a.m., it comes on later in the afternoon,” Collins said.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo


Guantanamo hearing wraps up with more delays

Efforts to move forward with pre-trial hearings for an Iraqi accused of killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were delayed due to a series of legal mix-ups.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Military trial inches on for alleged al-Qaida commander

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — It has been more than 3,000 days since alleged al-Qaida commander Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi was transferred to the U.S. military’s detention facility here.

And new complications this week have further tangled the web of his already Gordian war-court proceedings and will extend his stay at least two more months.

In 2013, congressional Democrats estimated the cost of housing one detainee for one year at the prison camp to be $2.7 million, based on Defense Department figures.

Hadi, a native of Mosul, Iraq, faces life in prison, accused of masterminding a series of attacks on American, Canadian, German, British, Estonian and Norwegian forces, including a 2003 attack on a U.S. military convoy at Shkin, Afghanistan, that killed two U.S. soldiers and injured numerous others.

After another one of his attacks on Oct. 25, 2003, killed two more U.S. soldiers, Hadi’s fighters shot at injured coalition soldiers, according to the charges against him.

He is also accused of attacking civilians and a medical helicopter attempting to recover casualties from the battlefield; directing fighters to kill all coalition soldiers and take no prisoners; providing a reward to the Taliban for assassinating a civilian United Nations worker; acting on orders from Osama bin Laden; attempting to assassinate then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf; and destroying historic Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A pretrial hearing for Hadi that was originally scheduled to begin July 20 and last about a week and a half has been slipped to Sept. 14.

This week’s hearings in Guantanamo got off to a rough start when, two hours prior to a scheduled chambers meeting Sunday, lead government prosecutor Army Lt. Col. David Long turned over 10 pages of evidence from jailhouse conversations in 2007 between Hadi and a Sept. 11 defendant also imprisoned at Guantanamo, Mustafa al Hawsawi.

Hadi’s lead defense lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper, said these conversations included information that was adverse to his client.

The prosecution apparently intended to include information from the conversation between Hadi and Hawsawi to prove Hadi was an “unprivileged enemy belligerent,” a label used by the government to determine jurisdiction of war crimes cases, limiting them to the military courts in Guantanamo.

When Hadi’s defense lawyers asked for more time to review the evidence they received Sunday — less than one day before the military hearings were scheduled to begin — the judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, delayed the hearings for two days to give the defense a chance to determine the scope of potential conflict-of-interest issues.

“It is not the prosecution’s job to do conflicts analysis for counsel,” chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said Friday when asked about the reason for the delayed submission of evidence. “We take our discovery obligation very seriously. We are producing it as we find it and prepare it.”

In court Wednesday morning, Waits scolded the prosecution for the delay in submitting evidence — waiting less than one day before the military hearings were scheduled to begin.

“Promptly means promptly,” Waits said. “I didn’t think that was subject to interpretation.”

Jasper, Hadi’s top Pentagon-paid defense lawyer, said two days was not enough time to weed through all the complex conflict-of-interest issues resulting from the new evidence stemming from the chats between Hawsawi and Hadi.

One such issue: It turns out the two alleged war criminals have a defense lawyer in common, at least on paper — Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason.

Gleason became Hadi’s first defense attorney after he arrived at Guantánamo in 2007 in an ongoing churn of attorneys through the on-again, off-again war court’s bar.

According to Jasper, Hadi had not properly released Gleason when the Pentagon’s chief defense counsel assigned him to help defend Hawsawi in the 9/11 case. Now the evidence concerning one could be used against the other, which Jasper said posed ethical issues that could complicate future proceedings for the entire defense team.

Hadi spoke to the military judge directly about his concerns. “Attorney Gleason has lots of information concerning me. I don’t know if he’s gong to use this information in the future for me or against me,” he said in Arabic through a translator Wednesday.

The process for releasing defense counsel from representation for a military commission client includes formal dismissal by both military judge and detainee client.

Though Gleason has not represented Hadi in court since being detailed to Hawsawi’s case, the commission now seeks to determine whether he was properly and formally released.

Waits agreed there was a potential conflict for Gleason in representing both Hawsawi and Hadi and said that issue must be resolved, but ruled an hour into the hearing that proceedings could continue because Hadi’s current lawyers were conflict-free.

But Hadi protested, raising new objections.

“Right now I have a very disturbed relationship with my attorneys,’’ he said of his Pentagon-funded defense team, Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk.

“I don’t want them to represent me at this time,” Hadi added, citing frustrations over the number of attorneys assigned to work with him on his case over the years.

Hadi said he wants the option of using an independent counsel not assigned by the military — a request he has made before — but agreed to first meet with Gleason.

Both U.S. military defense and prosecution attorneys have come and gone from Hadi’s case. Army Reserve Col. Chris Callen represented Hadi at his June 2014 arraignment, and was replaced by Jasper in September. Stirk, a deputy defense counsel, has been the only defense lawyer to appear at all five of Hadi’s hearings.

Wednesday’s hearing also marked the debut of Felice Viti of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Utah, a new federal attorney who prosecuted the Elizabeth Smart kidnap and rape case. But Viti never uttered a word amid the flurry of conflict issues raised by the defense.

At the end of the hearing Wednesday, Waits put the proceedings on indefinite hold until a meeting between Hadi and Gleason could be arranged.

Though prosecutor Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer told the military judge Gleason is an active-duty Marine and could be contacted “as quickly as you direct us,” Guantanamo court officials began to book return flights for Saturday as soon as they realized Gleason, not present in Guantanamo this week, could not be located.

Gleason’s email auto-response says he is out of the office until Aug. 7.

On Friday, Martins, the chief prosecutor, said he did not know where Gleason is.

“I won’t in any way try to say that what we’re doing is setting land-speed records,” Martins said of the effort to locate Gleason and facilitate a meeting with Hadi. “We’re making incremental progress. The judge is going to sort out the facts of representation. And counsel have an obligation to make sure they’re representing the client’s interests.”

When asked about the costs of rescheduling the Hadi hearings, which included more than a dozen witnesses for the scheduled 10-day military commission’s version of a show-cause hearing in Guantanamo, Martins said: “These are really important cases. It’s easy to do comparative cost figures and fail to see how important it is to get national security right and fairness right.”

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