Guantánamo Notebook: I Spent 20 Years Covering America's Secretive Detention Regime. Torture Was Always the Subtext.Margot Williams The Intercept
I Spent 20 Years Covering America’s Secretive Detention Regime. Torture Was Always the Subtext.
I would spend the next two decades learning those prisoners’ names and covering the story of America’s not-so-secret terrorism detention complex. It started as a research challenge: to uncover the secrets of what some have called the “American Gulag.” Later, as hundreds more nameless “enemy combatants” were brought to the remote U.S. naval base on the south coast of Cuba, I followed the story through the brief wax and long wane of the Guantánamo news cycle. I wanted to know who was detained and why — and when the “war on terror” would end.
I collected boxes of files and spreadsheets of data, building a trove of Guantánamo research as I moved to new jobs and new cities. Along the way, I encountered other reporters and researchers with similar habits and disparate methods, all seeking to understand what was going on down there.
Some 780 Muslim men have been held at Guantánamo since 2002. More than 500 were released during the Bush administration, about 200 under President Barack Obama, one by President Donald Trump, and one so far by President Joe Biden. Many have been repatriated, while others have been transferred to countries that negotiated with the U.S. to accept them. Nine died in custody. Thirty-nine remain at Guantánamo today. Of those, 18 have been approved for transfer to other countries, including five approved by the Biden administration on Tuesday.
In 2004, the Post appended my list of detainees and added my name to the Page 1 byline of a story headlined “Guantánamo — A Holding Cell In War on Terror.” Reporters Scott Higham and Joe Stephens had visited the U.S. enclave in Cuba while I stayed behind in the newsroom. They brought me back a baseball cap with the logo of the Joint Detention Operations Group, known as JDOG, from the Guantánamo gift shop.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2006 that the Pentagon released an official list of detainees’ names. (The list is no longer even available on the .mil website, but it is safe in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.) By that time, I had taken a research position at the New York Times, where I joined reporters in obsessively tracking the flights of the CIA’s secret rendition jets to and from black sites around the globe. We focused on connecting the Guantánamo detainee names with military tribunal documents released following Freedom of Information Act litigation by human rights lawyers and news organizations. Months of work by newsroom engineers produced the innovative interactive database known as the Guantánamo Docket, launched in 2007 and still online. The database, recently updated by Times reporter Carol Rosenberg, now has an extended list of contributors spanning its nearly 15 years of existence.
In September 2006, President George W. Bush acknowledged the CIA’s secret detention program, saying that 14 “high-value detainees” in CIA black sites had been brought to Guantánamo. (“I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture,” Bush pledged in the same speech. “It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it — and I will not authorize it.”)
“So I’m announcing today that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and 11 other terrorists in CIA custody have been transferred to the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay,” the president said to applause from a supportive audience in the White House. “They are being held in the custody of the Department of Defense. As soon as Congress acts to authorize the military commissions I have proposed, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on September the 11th, 2001, can face justice.”
Fifteen years later, the organizers of the 9/11 attacks still have not faced justice.
The Obama Years
On January 22, 2009, Obama’s second day in office, he signed an executive order to shut down Guantánamo within a year. He wanted to try the 9/11 architects in U.S. federal courts, but a Democratic-controlled Congress blocked him. In 2011, the government initiated a new procedure for reviewing the status of the remaining detainees, and the military commission trials were reset. I was following the “war on terror” as it came home.
At NPR, where I had by then joined a new investigative team, I worked with criminal justice reporter Carrie Johnson to expose another secretive prison system right here in the U.S., where convicted terrorists, mostly Muslim, were segregated in facilities known as Communications Management Units. Our editors dubbed these prisons “Guantánamo North.”
We could not visit the facilities, but we met with prisoners who had been released, including one man at his home in Washington, D.C. (The only former Guantánamo detainee I’ve met in real life, as opposed to via Zoom, is Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera journalist who was imprisoned there for six years. We talked when I was seated at his table at an awards banquet during a journalism conference in Norway in 2008.)
In April 2011, NPR and the Times collaborated to publish a trove of secret Guantánamo documents obtained by WikiLeaks. I went up to New York to read and process them for inclusion in the Guantánamo Docket database while reporting on the revelations for NPR.
Finally, on May 5, 2012, the 9/11 defendants were arraigned in the military courtroom in Guantánamo. I was watching on closed-circuit TV from a building in Fort Meade with a large group of reporters who had not made it onto the military-approved media trip to Guantánamo. As the hours passed, we glimpsed the accused when the camera panned over the defense tables. It was our first look at a gray-bearded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — known to everyone as “KSM” — who would appear worldwide the next day in sketch artist Janet Hamlin’s amazing drawing.
Torture was always the subtext. As months and years of pretrial hearings dragged on, the defense lawyers continued to demand evidence about the conditions under which the captives had been held, details of their “enhanced interrogations,” and the reliability of admissions made while being held underwater, locked in a box, or standing naked and sleep-deprived in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Guantánamo.
After I joined The Intercept in 2014, I continued to trek to Fort Meade for the military commission hearings and to the Pentagon to watch the Periodic Review Board process launched during the Obama administration. Detainees who have not yet been charged — despite being held for 15 to 20 years — can make their case to a panel of U.S. defense and intelligence officials as to whether they still “pose a threat.” The “open” portion, which observers can watch on live video at the Pentagon, lasts at most 15 minutes, and the detainee doesn’t speak. I attend these so that I can see the prisoners and report back, and so that the Pentagon knows that yes, the press is still interested in how they look and the aging of the detainee population. It goes without saying that there are very few in the media room for these ongoing hearings.
When the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the torture regime was released in December 2014, my Intercept colleagues and I mined the text and footnotes to map the black sites and looked for the CIA detainees who didn’t get to Guantánamo.
The banality of the torture system shone through in 2016 as we developed Guantánamo stories from The Intercept’s archive of NSA documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2003, an NSA staffer described an assignment there. As we reported:
“On a given week,” he wrote, he would “pull together intelligence to support an upcoming interrogation, formulate questions and strategies for the interrogation, and observe or participate in the interrogation.”
Outside work, “fun awaits,” he enthused. “Water sports are outstanding: boating, paddling, fishing, water skiing and boarding, sailing, swimming, snorkeling, and SCUBA.” If water sports were “not your cup of tea,” there were also movies, pottery, paintball, and outings to the Tiki Bar. “Relaxing is easy,” he concluded.
The Trump Era
In January 2017, I went to Guantánamo for the first time, as a reporter for The Intercept covering the 9/11 military commission hearings. Under the guidance of Rosenberg, the doyenne of the Gitmo press corps who was then writing for the Miami Herald, I was introduced to the amenities of the press room, the media sleeping tents, latrines, showers, and the confusing, ever-changing rules of the road. No Wi-Fi except at the supermarket complex, pay-by-the-week internet access in the press room, and don’t forget your ethernet connector. Military minders accompanying us everywhere on base. Operational security — OPSEC — reviews of every photo taken every day. Notebooks and pens only in the visitor gallery at the back of the courtroom, where we sat separated by glass from the defendants, legal teams, and judge. No drawing or doodling allowed.
I was excited to be there, in the room as the 9/11 defendants walked in, surrounded by military guards until they took their seats, then turning to chat among themselves. Five defendants, each with a legal defense team headed by “learned counsel,” meaning an attorney experienced in death penalty cases.
Also in the visitor gallery, separated from the press and nongovernmental organization representatives by a curtain, were relatives of the victims, bearing witness to the proceedings.
In June 2018, I went on the Joint Task Force Guantánamo media tour. JTF GTMO is in charge of the detention center. We were able to go inside the prison, although mostly to see a Potemkin village reproduction of a cellblock, complete with a prison library. With my former Intercept colleague Miriam Pensack and a crew from Voice of America, we were given access to parts of the mysterious facility, including lots of institutional kitchens. We even briefly glimpsed one detainee from inside the guard center, a man I was later able to identify from his physical description in the files I’d been compiling for the previous 16 years.
The admiral in charge met with us, and a contractor working as a cultural adviser lectured us about the hunger strikers “faking it.” We also went on a drive to the abandoned Camp X-Ray, where the first detainees were held in 2002 and the location of those infamous photos of men in orange jumpsuits and shackles. We took photos of the fences and weeds and drove to the lonely border with Cuba, where more photos were allowed and then OPSEC’d.
On September 11, 2019, reporters and victims’ relatives joined sailors, soldiers, their families, and military commission attorneys at the base for the annual 9/11 evening run that commemorates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the fallen jet in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. At sunset, near the turnaround mark, I saw the Windward Point Lighthouse, built in 1904 by the 1898 U.S. occupiers of Guantánamo. I was the last person to finish the race on that beautiful tropical night. The next day, back in the courtroom, motion hearings about classified evidence and discovery and potential witnesses continued.
Returning in January 2020, I watched as the defense called a reluctant and antagonistic witness, James Mitchell, a psychologist known as the architect of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. He testified just yards from the defendants waterboarded under his orders in the black sites. “I felt my moral obligation to protect American lives outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who voluntarily took up arms against us,” Mitchell said, holding back tears. “I’d get up today and do it again.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. The military commissions were suspended for more than a year and a half. When they restarted, the media tents were gone and public health restrictions prevailed. Wary, I watched from Fort Meade in August 2021 as the arraignment of the three alleged Bali bombers, 18 years after their capture, dissolved into disagreements over the quality of the Malaysian interpreters.
In November 2021, there were required Covid tests, masks, and takeout meals in hotel rooms and on backyard patio tables. Camp X-Ray was now off-limits, no photos were allowed, and we had to agree that any selfies from the border gate would not be published or posted. There was a new judge in the 9/11 case — the fourth — and he had a lot of catching up to do. The chief prosecutor was gone, and the chief defense officer was retiring. Some of the victims’ families were now speaking out about possible plea agreements, instead of a capital trial after 20 years of waiting.
The Biden administration could take some relatively simple steps to increase transparency around Guantánamo. To begin with, it could declassify the 6,000-page Senate torture report. A second courtroom now being built at Guantánamo for $4 million could have facilities for press to observe the proceedings in person, which are not in the current plans. And it could speed up the Freedom of Information Act process. My 2017 request for State Department documents relating to the detainee transfer process is still open, with a projected delivery date in 2023.
I signed up for this month’s session at Guantánamo so that I could be there on the 20th anniversary of the first detention, which was Tuesday. But the hearings in the 9/11 case were canceled. So I didn’t take an Uber to Joint Base Andrews at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday for a Covid test and a charter flight to Cuba a few hours later. I didn’t need my ethernet connector or my bug spray or my T-Mobile phone because that’s the only carrier on the base.
And my press ID? I hung it on a hook with an old Capitol Hill pass, where it’ll stay until the trial of the 9/11 defendants begins in 2023.