John Ryan, a legal affairs journalist, often sits alone in the front row of the court gallery during pretrial hearings at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Three panes of glass separate him from the five men accused of orchestrating the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as the defense and prosecution lawyers, judge, guards, court staff, and witnesses. Television monitors relay the scene and audio with a 40-second delay, should any classified information be uttered, which is flagged by a flashing red light behind the judge’s bench. “It’s a little bit disjointed,” Ryan said. “I think it is important just to be there. It’s hard to articulate. It just feels weird to me that the front row would be empty.”
For the past six years, Ryan, the cofounder and editor of the legal affairs publication Lawdragon, has been following the pretrial hearings over an event that “changed the course of global history” and led to the creation of the prison where the court is located, a place Ryan now calls his “second home.” Much of the recent deliberations have focused on whether testimony obtained using torture—or what the United States government called “enhanced interrogation techniques”—can be used at trial.
Gitmo once drew international outrage, and American and international reporters flocked to the scene. Twenty years on, it rarely sees journalists except on anniversaries, like last year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Sometimes Ryan and veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg, now at The New York Times, are the only journalists at the camp. I asked Ryan whether the public still cares: “I don’t see it. There are elements of the public that do, but I think it’s a pretty small number, and I think it’s really just outside what anyone is caring or thinking about.”
Twenty years have passed since the first prisoners landed blindfolded in orange jumpsuits and were cuffed and caged in the now-closed Camp X-Ray on the United States naval base in Cuba. Today, 39 men live in the prison, which once held 780—only 12 of them have been charged with war crimes, including the five who will face trial for the September 11 attacks.
While Ryan said it is important that a journalist be present for legal proceedings, he also said he was “hooked” on the story, much like a handful of others who have covered Gitmo over the years. By filing countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, these journalists and academics have shaped the public record on the prison that the United States government has hidden from public view. But recent reports of plans to build a new courtroom in Guantánamo, without a viewing gallery, have raised concerns about further restrictions on press access. “The larger concern is if the Pentagon views that video feeds can substitute for in-person viewing, they could use that rationale for limiting attendance on Guantánamo for legal proceedings more broadly,” Ryan said.
While proceedings can be viewed via live video feeds in the Pentagon and at Fort Meade in Maryland, Ryan said details are lost, such as a view of the whole courtroom—and when information deemed to be classified is uttered, the video feed is cut, which is part of the reason he is in court so regularly. (In January 2013, the CIA remotely cut a live video feed during a court proceeding, but a judge ruled that it could not do so again).
“Guantánamo continues to be a black hole of secrecy,” said Jason Leopold, a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News. “Things that happened even in 2002 remain top secret for some reason.” Leopold, like many reporters who have passed through the military base on an official media tour, realized early on that documents would be key to moving beyond the government “propaganda” and telling the real story of the prison.
Leopold has filed 325 FOIA requests related to Guantánamo, many focused on the treatment of detainees. Among them have been seemingly obscure requests. He has asked to see the playlists of interrogation sessions; the supplies of Ensure, a nutrition drink used in force feeding; closed-circuit television footage of the force-feeding of detainees; information about the use of malaria medication for treatment of detainees; and details surrounding the alleged suicide of detainee Adnan Latif. Through documents, Leopold said, he hoped to give the public a “fly on the wall” view, but not working in “real time” can pose challenges. “You’re working sometimes years later to try and tell the public about something that happened years earlier,” he told me.
Among the most difficult documents to obtain are those related to Camp 7, where 14 “high-value detainees,” including those accused of planning the September 11 attacks in 2001, were housed. The CIA interrogated these men at black sites around the world and in Guantánamo itself, and much of the program that was approved by President George W. Bush’s administration remains secret.
Leopold said he remains concerned about the order and quality of the government’s archives and the risk that the prison will fall into a “memory hole.” “We’re 20 years in,” he said, “and it’s an important part of our history, and it is beyond the people who can give firsthand accounts. It’s the documents that are going to be able to really tell the story.”
For award-winning researcher Margot Williams, who led the creation of The New York Times’ meticulously ordered Guantánamo Docket, the largest online database on detainees, the story is far from over. Williams who often works on large global investigative projects, still follows Guantánamo closely. Five years ago, she filed an FOIA request asking for information on the agreements between the United States and governments that hosted former detainees that had to be settled in third countries because of security reasons, such as the case of Russian former detainee Ravil Mingazov, which I reported on for The Nation. “Who is living up to these agreements? What kind of money did we give? What was the trade-off, and why are we not successful at getting the last 29 people out?” she said. “I’d like to retire, but this is the one thing that is keeping me from retiring completely. I want to see it through.”
Director Alex Gibney and reporter Raymond Bonner spent years investigating the story of Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian detainee, an alleged middle man accused of being a member of Al Qaeda, for their documentary The Forever Prisoner that was released in December. Bonner refers to Zubaydah as the “guinea pig” for torture under the guise of enhanced interrogation and has requested dozens of documents, including redacted drawings that illustrated his treatment in US custody, which were obtained through FOIA requests and used in Gibney’s film.
David A. Schulz, a lawyer who heads the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale University, has worked with both Bonner and Rosenberg and journalists from the Associated Press on FOIA requests, First Amendment challenges, and negotiating access to the prison and the legal proceedings surrounding it. “It has been like pulling teeth,” he told me. Seventeen of his students have worked on eight different legal challenges against the government for Bonner and Gibney, over a period of six years related to access to information regarding Zubaydah’s case. Schulz and his students successfully sued the CIA to have information redacted from former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan’s memoir The Black Banners, which was published in 2011, declassified, so they could speak to him about his interrogation of Zubaydah at a black site in Thailand. “It’s important to push back on these claims of classification,” Schulz told me. “Some of them may well be protecting the national interest, but it’s too easy to withhold information that’s embarrassing, that reveals inappropriate conduct, or that is going to make the agency look bad.”
Gibney, whose request to film at the prison was denied in August last year, said he is concerned that press restrictions for journalists and filmmakers like himself are getting worse. Other journalists interviewed for this story, like Williams, said areas of the camp that they had photographed previously are now off-limits or cannot be published. “Nobody wants to talk about it, so you just avoid it and keep coming up with new rules and regulations that make it more and more secret,” Gibney said about the Biden administration’s approach to Guantánamo. Bonner is persisting with FOIA requests on Zubaydah, and Gibney is now considering a film about Afghanistan.
For Bonner and Gibney, the declassification of the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, part of which was published in 2014, or “at least the executive summary,” is necessary to telling the real story of Guantánamo, given how central the CIA’s system of rendition and torture was to the establishment of the prison. “After 20 years, we’re not protecting secrets. We’re covering up a shameful period in American history,” said Bonner
A few weeks ago, Ryan said he was preparing for his 38th trip to the prison in covering the September 11 case. He had expected to share the gallery with other journalists for the 20th anniversary, but the judge canceled the hearing. Ryan anticipates waiting until February or March, depending on developments with Covid-19, before he again takes his place alone in the front row of what he argued should still be considered “the trial of the century.”