At a White House press conference this past June, a journalist asked President Bush what was to become of the nearly 500 prisoners still detained at the Al Qaeda detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. “I urge members of our press corps to go down to Guantanamo and see how [the prisoners] are treated…and to look at the facts,” the president responded. “That’s all I ask people to do…If you’ve got questions about Guantanamo, I seriously suggest you go down there and take a look.”
Given how little is still understood about what is to become of Guantanamo, coupled with the endless conflicting reports of prisoner mistreatment, it is natural that you might feel tempted to take the President up on this offer. Why not accept his invitation and go down to Cuba to take a look around yourself? Why shouldn’t you try to finally get to the bottom of things? Before going, however, we think it necessary you be prepared, which is why we’ve put together this brief how-to manual on getting there. To begin: get your passport in order, buy a plane ticket and most of all, have very low expectations.
1. Establish credibility.
To get permission to travel to Guantanamo, you must first prove that you are a journalist. Don’t fret. If Tucker Carlson can do it, so can you. Begin by either writing articles for publication or, in the case of certain members of the White House press corps, run a conservative blog while moonlighting as a male escort. You will then be asked to sign off on a series of ground rules in which you essentially agree to refrain from any real reporting: no talking to the prisoners or taking their photo, no identifying them in any way, no yelling out to them such things as, “Has your Koran been flushed down the toilet?” Sign the ground rules. Should you refuse, you will be prohibited from traveling to Guantanamo. If you break them while you’re there, you will be subject to permanent expulsion.
2. Make travel plans.
You must then make your way to Ft. Lauderdale, a fitting place for the real weirdness to begin. Lynx Air, a small private airline, flies from Florida to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay four times a week. A seat on the flight will cost you about $400 and you should expect no frills (like, say, a bathroom on board the plane). Even though the Public Affairs office at Guantanamo will waste no effort reminding you of the sensitivity of the mission you are witnessing, nobody will have mentioned this to the employees of Lynx. If you are a man, the totality of your security check will entail having your ankles waved with a wand. If you are a woman, you will be completely overlooked. At no point will your carry-on luggage be screened.
The plane is about the size of those sometimes seen tied to a thin string, twirling above a baby’s crib. You will have to crawl on your knees down a small aisle and delicately maneuver into the tiny seat. A person who appears to be the flight attendant will then crawl aboard and announce that there is a Ziploc bag full of emergency supplies in the seat pocket. He will then get in the front seat, start the plane, and fly it.
The flight from Florida to Cuba is nearly three hours. The engines’ roar is somewhat deadening inside so bring heavy earplugs and do not be surprised if you make an unannounced stop in the Bahamas. Apparently, this is to “pick up fuel” at an airstrip in the middle of absolutely nowhere: a dirt road cut through rolling hills—the kind of place where foreign leaders are secretly assassinated in the dead of night. Do not attempt to ask questions about why we need more fuel for a three-hour flight and do not snap any photos of the plane. Doing so may bring about a large woman willing to tackle you for your film. You might also be tempted to ask why photos are prohibited, as this is a private airline, not a military plane and you are in the Bahamas, not Cuba. Don’t. Instead, take this opportunity to absorb the lesson of your Guantanamo media trip: the less you ask the better. You are not there to understand things.
3. Arrive at Guantanamo.
Cuba from the sky is surprising. Unlike the Bahamas, with its swelling forests and flawless coastline, Cuba’s coast is jagged and rough and the terrain is more desert than tropical. When you disembark the plane, you will be punched in the head by the heat, and immediately surrounded by scowling soldiers with M16s. Do not be intimated. You are much older than they are.
At the airport, you will be met by your media escorts, with whom you will spend every waking moment over the next four days. Be nice to them. They’re probably reservists who have already served in Afghanistan or Iraq—or both—and are now forced to spend at least a year carting journalists around the island when all they really want is to be back home with their pretty wives and their job at the pharmacy.
The base is located on two spits of land that jut out into the Caribbean. The base has been around for a long time, and it feels like a small American town. “Downtown Gitmo,” as the center of base activity is known, includes a large commissary with a Wal-Mart feel, a McDonald’s, and an outdoor movie theater. There are even three Starbucks now operating on base. Chances are you’ll be tempted to do a bit of exploring. You might want to check out karaoke night at the Tiki Bar, talk to the soldiers, see if you can’t find an interrogator and buy him a whiskey or two. You can’t. The hotel where you’ll stay is located across the bay via a thirty-minute ferry ride. You’re never allowed to be alone, and you must stay with the media tour at all times. Do not worry if you begin to feel suspicious that you are being kept away from the action. You are.
4. Feel frustrated and useless.
It’s not that you won’t see things, you will. You’ll get a tour of the cages where prisoners are kept. Inside you’ll see where they sleep, what they wear and the games they get to play if they’re good. But they’ll be empty of what you’d really like to see: the prisoners themselves. You’ll see the empty tiny area surrounded by chain link where they take recreation. You’ll see the empty hospital. You’ll see the empty building that’s being set up as a courtroom, should the prisoners ever get their cases heard.
The problem is, regardless of what you may have been led to believe by the President’s invitation, you’re not going to get the real story. Instead, you will be fed a constant stream of spin that, even for this administration, feels exceptionally well-rehearsed. As you stand inside Camp Delta, your military tour guide will tell you how things are kept very cool for the prisoners’ comfort. He says this with conviction even as you watch the sweat pour down his cheeks and you can barely breathe from the heat.
At a group interview with someone in charge, like Brigadier General John Gong, the second in command of the detention operation—someone with whom you might hope to engage in an intelligent discussion about the unprecedented mission at Guantanamo—the scene may become downright surreal. You will be told that the prisoners are enjoying “the utmost humane treatment they could receive anywhere,” just minutes after having peered inside the four-by-six foot cages where they’ve been kept for three years, and could be kept forever, as far as they know. You will be told the prisoners are “tremendously well-taken care of,” soon after hearing that some must be force-fed at the hospital, too despondent or angry to eat. You will be told that each year, each prisoner’s case will be objectively and thoroughly reviewed by an Annual Review Board, or ARB, to determine if the detainee should be released. You will be told that the ARBs give the prisoners the “utmost opportunity to present what he wants to present” and that the proceedings are taken very seriously. You will be told this just hours after having attended an actual ARB hearing yourself, during which one of the military officers serving as a judge was nodding asleep and the translator and the detainee could barely communicate.
5. Be afraid. Really, really afraid.
Though experiences like these may lead to fear for the future of our country and our long-standing democratic ideals, there’s something else you should fear more: Lori. She is a government contractor who runs the Operation Security unit, known more commonly as OpSec. Her job, as she’ll often remind you as she lurks behind you every step of the way, is to make sure that you do not do anything “inappropriate” or that might put the mission at risk. Like asking tough questions. The more you know about Guantanamo, and the more you’d like to find out, the more Lori will make the day difficult for you. “Do not answer that,” she’ll breezily direct the commander of the prison in response to a question about tough physical tactics used against the detainees. Why not? It’s sensitive, she’ll simply say. Should you press on, she may threaten to stop the tour, take your camera and banish you from the island.
She is also responsible for reviewing all of your film before you leave Guantanamo (only digital cameras are allowed) and she has the right to erase or censor any images she deems too sensitive. Of course, censoring the press is not a job that should be taken lightly, so try not to put Lori in the very difficult position of having to erase your film. This includes not taking any photos of her, which she will immediately erase. Ask her why. Is that sensitive information? “No,” she’ll likely respond with a snicker. “I’ve just never liked the way I look on film.”
6. Four days later, go home.
Your job is done here. Get on the plane, get out of Cuba. You’ve accomplished nothing. Good work, your president will be proud.
Aimee Molloy traveled to Guantanamo this summer as part of research for the book she co-wrote with Chaplain James Yee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, available this month from Public Affairs.
Molloy is a New York-based writer, journalist and has written for Architectural Digest.