Bracing for a Busy Year at Guantánamo’s War Court

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Bracing for a Busy Year at Guantánamo’s War Court


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This report was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In the 20 years I have been covering the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, I have had to practice different kinds of journalism. Sometimes I’m an investigative reporter, scouring documents and using the Freedom of Information Act to find information the military does not want you to know.

Some of my reporting is an extension of my time as a war correspondent, when I covered the invasions of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some people call me a human rights reporter because I put conditions at the remote prison under a microscope — for both captives and captors. Sometimes I feel like a small-town reporter covering the remote, 45-square-mile outpost with a population of 6,000 people (a third of whom are foreign laborers from Jamaica and the Philippines), a traffic court, a school system for sailors’ children, a McDonald’s and a pesky feral cat population.

But 2020 is shaping up to be, more than ever, my nearly nonstop year as the Guantánamo war-court reporter. The judges have scheduled a record 215 days of military-commission hearings in the war-crimes cases at the Expeditionary Legal Complex, the national-security court that is built on an abandoned airfield with a moldy trailer park for the troops and a crude tent city for the reporters and other observers.

Probably the best known among the proceedings there are the pretrial hearings that are working on the applicable laws and evidence for the death-penalty trial of the five men who are accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The lead defendant is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who after years in C.I.A. custody — including 183 rounds of waterboarding — boasted that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 plot “from A to Z.” The trial is currently scheduled to start with jury selection in January 2021. But, for that to happen, a lot will have to be accomplished in terms of hearings, judicial rulings and the facilities necessary to accommodate what is anticipated to be hundreds of trial participants at Guantánamo for months on end.

This year starts with high drama on Jan. 20, the opening of a two-week hearing in the 9/11 case that is expected to take testimony from James Mitchell, a psychologist and former C.I.A. contractor who with his partner, Bruce Jessen, personally waterboarded Mohammed at a black site in March 2003, the month of his capture in Pakistan.

Unless the testimony is derailed or postponed, not an infrequent occurrence at Guantánamo, it will mark the first time that the two men will be in the same courtroom as the five defendants who were subjected to the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Mitchell and Jessen drew up for the Bush administration in 2002. But this time, the psychologists will be the ones answering the questions while Mohammed and the men who spent up to four years in the C.I.A. black sites will be the ones watching.

Defense lawyers say the defendants were tortured using waterboarding and other interrogation methods that President Barack Obama banned in 2009. Now the two psychologists are being called as witnesses as part of a monthslong effort by lawyers for Mohammed and the others to exclude anything self-incriminating the five men said at Guantánamo as tainted by their early time in C.I.A. custody, when they were denied International Red Cross visits and hidden from lawyers and the United States court system.

The law that governs military commissions requires that any admission a defendant makes has to have been voluntary. Prosecutors do not dispute that what Mohammed and the others said in the C.I.A. prisons was coerced, and they are not seeking to use those interrogations at trial. Mitchell and Jessen are being called as experts on the C.I.A. program that used violence, threats, sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation to force information out of the terror suspects — to bolster a defense argument that, even though they were transferred to Guantánamo in 2006, the statements the defendants gave F.B.I. agents within months were involuntary, the results of the black-site regimen of “learned helplessness.”

The testimony brings high stakes. A longtime case prosecutor, Jeffrey D. Groharing, has called the 2007 F.B.I. interrogations “the most critical evidence in this case.” Defense lawyers consider the psychologists’ eyewitness testimony to be a crucial component in their effort to build a graphic narrative of what the C.I.A. did to its captives as they argue the United States has lost the moral authority to execute men it tortured.

The judges do cancel or shorten hearing weeks. And hurricanes and higher courts have thwarted their plans in the 15 years of Guantánamo military commissions. But for now I am planning for long and rugged stays at Guantánamo’s tent city in 2020, which, between the court calendar and military-arranged travel, could double the 117 days I logged at the base in 2019.

That’s the number of additional troops the Pentagon has deployed to the Middle East as tensions between the United States and Iran reached new levels in the last several days. Adding to the 50,000 people already stationed in the region, the reinforcements come after a series of incidents drawing both countries to the brink of war, including the death of an American contractor from a rocket fired by an Iranian-backed militia, the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran and a retaliatory attack by Iran against two military bases in Iraq housing American and coalition forces. The majority of new troops, who will serve primarily defensive purposes in the event of more attacks on Americans overseas, came from the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, N.C. The remaining forces include 100 Marines, also sent to Kuwait, who recently aided in the withdrawal of American forces from northeastern Syria; 100 Army Rangers, deployed after last week’s drone strike; and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, from which 2,200 Marines and sailors were deployed to the region along with a squadron of transport helicopters and attack jets. They join the roughly 45,000-65,000 military personnel already based in Persian Gulf nations, including 5,500 in Iraq. Read The Times breakdown of the new deployments here.

— Jake Nevins, Times Magazine editorial fellow

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