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WASHINGTON – It was a scary, rough time just four months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the military in Guantánamo Bay received its first prisoners from the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had declared the isolated naval outpost behind a Cuban minefield to be “the worst place” where suspected Taliban and foreign fighters, most of whom had been surrendered by local allies, were held.
I sat in the midday sun on a small, dusty rise above the base’s runway and watched two Marines 20 prisoners walk down the ramp of a now obsolete Starlifter military cargo plane.
A small knot of civil reporters was allowed to watch, but not take photos, in return for submitting a pool account to the Pentagon press corps. Here is an excerpt:
2:55: The first prisoner comes out. He wears fluorescent orange overalls, a shiny turquoise face mask, protective goggles, similarly colored orange socks over white footwear, and a lighter orange headgear that looked like a knitted hat. His hands were tied in front of him and he was limping. He was searched and led to the waiting bus by at least two Marines.
When I talk to people about the day, on the radio, or with students, I say, “Close your eyes and imagine men in orange overalls on their knees in Guantánamo Bay.”
You’ve probably seen a picture of it. A The Navy photographer took it at Camp X-Ray on that first day and the Pentagon released it about a week later, capturing a moment in history whose continued media use has frustrated the military because not only does it look like torture to some people, the military is now home to its remainder 40 Guantánamo prisoners inside.
The photo sometimes haunted me in other ways. The Pentagon called these first men “the worst of the worst” but refused to name them. Almost from the start I asked myself: How do you know?
Four months before their arrival, the 9/11 attacks exposed the failures of US intelligence agencies. Vice President Dick Cheney had said that The military “could well be given missions in connection with this overall task and strategy” and “we have to spend time in the shadow of the intelligence world”. He called it “the dark side”.
It would be years before I could name these first 20 men. It took triangulation: I compared sloppily prepared weight tables of each prisoner by number, rather than flawed early intelligence profiles leaked in 2011, then consulted sources, including old notes.
Just before the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the detention center, I decided to retrace what became of the men photographed on their knees and discovered the following:
Almost all of the original 20 are gone. The Bush administration has repatriated eight of these first day prisoners. The Obama administration transferred 10 more.
Now we know that the Bush administration sent those who it truly believed were “the worst of the worst” not straight to Guantánamo, but to the secret C.I.A. Prison network, the black pages. The White House announced in September 2006 that it had brought 14 “good quality inmates” from the dark side to Guantánamo.
Among them were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men accused of planning the 9/11 attacks. You have been charged twice, most recently in 2012, and are yet to be tried.
Meanwhile, three of the men in this photo were part of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, whose deal with the Trump administration resulted in the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. A fourth step between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which essentially functions as a senior Taliban defense official.
I learned of the bleak existence of a man in the photo, Ibrahim Idris, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and other illnesses in US military custody and was repatriated to be detained at his mother’s house in Sudan. Then one day I got a message from Khartoum: “Tell this reporter that he has died.”
I wrote what I thought was the first obituary for a former Guantanamo inmate to appear in The Times. All who died before him were included in news articles.
I’ve covered history continuously and thought a lot about these first men since that first day, especially since President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan (except those guarding the U.S. embassy) on Nov. Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In Afghanistan, the flight began with these first 20 men and I was able to watch their arrival as the military understood that the mission was being carried out on behalf of the American people, not just the US military.
It has now been more than a year since a reporter entered this base, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the outpost is more isolated than ever. Very few lawyers have visited the detainees after a two-week quarantine, and a delegation from the International Red Cross has only visited them once a year instead of four.
Now we wait, wondering when, however late, there will be a 9/11 trial. No new hearing dates have been set and the case is again awaiting a new military judge.
This was probably the most mysterious of all years. The admiral, who was in command of the prison, took over the post in May 2019 and, unlike his predecessors, never met a reporter there or allowed media representatives to visit the prison zone, which has been a regular feature for years.
When the operation began and the 9/11 attacks were still a raw national trauma, the Navy general in charge could not always answer reporters’ questions. But he understood our right to ask her and did his best to answer.
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