GITMO has been a place shrouded in mystery and intrigue since it was set up in 2002, to handle the overflow of detainees coming out of the War on Terror, as the US still remained fragile and frightened. It was memorialized in the American psyche with visions of dogs and orange jump suits around prisoners who were crowded into open wire cells because proper camps were not built yet. Now, it's a sprawling complex of buildings and court rooms, a desalinization plant to make sure everyone is hydrated, classrooms, chow halls and restaurants.
"Welcome to Guantanamo Bay. Enjoy your Stay," said the announcement on the Ryan Airways flight as we touched down on the tarmac. After a three and a half hour flight, where I got my own row, was served a hearty lunch and even got a decent nap amidst preparations for our coverage this week, I was ready to tackle whatever lay ahead.
We walked off the plane to a blast of hot air - though not as hot as the air we'd left behind at Andrews Air Force Base, in Washington, DC. With a heat wave sweeping the east coast, Cuba would actually prove to be cooler.
And so it went.
July 6, 2010
5:15 am arrive at Andrews Airforce Base to wait for press to board the airplane
6:00 am, move to the hangar, en masse with 16 other members of the press
8:00 am board the Ryan Airways flight
11:30 am touch down in Cuba -- a lot of waiting. Gotta get credentials. A stop at the GITMO Starbucks where they had all the comforts of home in a squat, white cinderblock building, including wi-fi. Residents and off-duty service members were gathered around a flat screen, watching the soccer game, and around computers, looking at their Facebook pages. I got my iced coffee and was glad for it. Driving around, you see elementary schools and a high school with a beautiful track and football field. I wonder what it's like to to go to school here, to grow up here, as the child of a service member. We pass the McDonalds. We are only allowed to take pictures of the outside. I'm serious. There have actually been debates between press and the PAO staff here. We go through a lengthy press briefing, about what we can and cannot record, film, photograph - the "no photography signs" are off-limits. We are shown around the media operations center hangar, the Camp Justice sign, and again, shown what we can and cannot depict.
The area is a logistical nightmare for the press, trying to cover the pre-trial hearing of 50 year old Ibrahim Al-Qosi who is accused of conspiracy and material support of terrorism for being part of a mortar crew in Kabul, and later the convoy with Osama Bin Laden, ultimately helping him to escape. He is Bin Laden's alleged cook, accountant and body guard - both in the Sudan and Afghanistan.
The media operations center is inside a hangar, at least 300 yards away from the courtroom. There's still a log-in process every time to the computer system, and each of us must be escorted by a naval PAO every single time we move around the installation, short of evening wash-ups, etc. The staff is nice, cordial, and generally helpful, but they are never far, even when we go live.
But the story is worth it.
Al-Qosi is one of the oldest and longest detained here at Guantanamo Bay. He is expected to plead guilty and if he does, we should for the first time, hear what his interactions were with Bin Laden were, as well as what he knows about the operation. This would be the first conviction and guilty plea under the Obama administration. Three others have been convicted here. David Hicks of Australia, a confessed foot soldier for Al-Qaeda was sent back to Australia. Bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan of Yemen who was also sent back to his country. Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul is serving a life term here at the camps. Under Obama's new rules, if Al-Qosi does plead guilty, he is eligible neither for time served nor for a death sentence.
We will see what we learn today in court.