Guantanamo Bay: Inside America’s most secretive base with Peter van Agtmael
“Although home to 5,500 residents, Guantanamo is perhaps best known for holding the first prisoners of the War on Terror”
Forty-one captives were held the weekend Peter van Agtmael and I happened to share the same scripted tour of Guantanamo Bay’s naval base. Although home to 5,500 or so residents, Guantanamo is perhaps best known for holding the first prisoners of the War on Terror, who arrived there in January 2002. But Guantanamo is first and foremost a base in southeast Cuba. It has an airstrip, seaport, dusty 9-hole golf course, drive-through McDonalds, bars, a school system for sailor’s kids—and, behind a gate, far from all of that, sits the Detention Center Zone, the secretive base-within-a-base whose motto is "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent" detention.
As a reporter for the Miami Herald, I had covered the base since before the prison even opened. And, from my perch, I have long pitied the photographers who try to capture this mission. We all sign the same contract devised by the Pentagon as a condition of access—most of which is devoted to what the photographers can and cannot do. For starters, they agree to submit to the military every photo or video clip they make, through a procedure the prison calls "protecting operational security." We in the civilian world call it censorship, for U.S. troops study every photograph to decide which images must be destroyed, never to be seen by the outside world.
Faces of the guards and medics? Forbidden, with the exception of a few commanders. Captives? Their images can survive censorship only if the camera has blurred them or not captured their facial features, due to concerns that someone from al-Qaida (or, these days, ISIS) might identify soldiers or sailors and target their families, the military claims. A Pentagon interpretation of the Geneva Conventions forbids putting prisoners of war on parade, so interviewing them or photographing their faces is strictly prohibited.
Even if a journalist obtains a waiver from a captive’s attorney giving permission to interview and photograph the prisoners, that journalist may still run into trouble. The censors say the standard is, “Could a mother recognize her son in this photo?” These restrictions frustrate even the most accomplished photojournalists, and have disheartened the celebrated war correspondents I have seen pass through Guantanamo’s gates.
So I was eager to see what Peter, who has photographed in Afghanistan and Iraq, would do with his two-day pass into the Detention Center Zone. Peter and I have a shared history of the base: we both took part in a tour earlier this year, and attended the same photo opportunities and interviews with prison leadership. We peered into cell blocks through one-way glass and met with prison commanders. We also visited the Pentagon cultural advisor, an Arab-American, who helps the ever-changing guard force navigate the ‘humane’ aspects of the center and advises on the topic of Islam.
On the weekend of Peter’s visit to Guantanamo, it had a staff of 1,650 troops and civilian contractors. From guards to linguists to food workers, all are dedicated to the operation that holds 41 captives—foreign men who had spent a decade or more in U.S. detention. Yet, when the prison let reporters and photographers in over the weekend, that ratio of 40 Pentagon employees to each detainee is hard to discern.
Peter's portrayal of life inside the zone is a blur. A pair of headless soldiers stand near sandbags and the ubiquitous orange barriers. An Army guard hides her face behind a door as journalists enter—an accommodation created to give the press a photo opportunity that survives censorship. The Navy doctor and nurse in charge of the prison hospital provide a rare exception to the no-face rule: they stand side-by-side at the entrance to a crude clinic complex waiting to greet the touring journalists.
Peter acts as a conduit as his lens offers us a glimpse into a highly regimented organization that systematically deletes images of troops that show their faces. Mostly he captures the mood with empty spaces: an abandoned portion of Camp Delta at dawn; the entry gate and watch tower at Camp 6; an encampment of wooden huts where years ago lawyers could routinely meet their clients on weekends. No guards or detainees were there now, as the Detention Center Zone now adopts a “go-slow” mode on weekends.
In fact, Peter’s most complete photo of a captive and guards is illustrated through a picture of a picture hanging on a conference-room wall. It shows two guards walking a prisoner in flip-flops into the 100-cell, Camp 5 prison, which was decommissioned last summer. I know the picture well. It was taken years ago by a Navy photographer with a security clearance and freedom to roam the Detention Center Zone.
By photographing places without people, Peter sends a subtle message from his weekend visit: this is what the military reveals at a time when Guantanamo’s future is uncertain. The Pentagon is now waiting to see what President Donald Trump will do with the Detention Center. During his candidacy he promised to fill Guantanamo with more captives. On the weekend of our visit, the admiral in charge was still awaiting instructions.
Over the years, the prison at Guantanamo has detained nearly 800 people. President George W. Bush sent more than 500 away, and President Barack Obama resettled or repatriated roughly 200 more. During our weekend visit, reporters could see at most 26 of those who remained. Fifteen others have been hidden by the CIA for years, out of reach of attorneys and the International Red Cross.
They are still hidden today. Located in a Top Secret lockup mundanely named Camp 7, most of these “high-value detainees” arrived in 2006, the year Peter began to photograph the “War on Terror."
Six of them are perhaps Guantanamo’s most infamous prisoners—five men awaiting death-penalty trials for their involvement in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and the man accused of the October 12, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Their hearings have been going on for years at Guantanamo’s Expeditionary Legal Complex, a snoop-proof building photographers are forbidden to show. The military brings the families of the terror victims to Guantanamo to watch these death-penalty trials—among them parents and shipmates of the 17 sailors killed in the Cole bombing and the relatives of the 2,976 people who were killed in the 9/11 terror attacks. They are housed in a townhouse development called East Caravella, where our tour group stayed during our three-night visit.
Outside of the Detention Zone, life on the Naval Base is business as usual. Guantanamo has been here for more than a century, long before the prison was constructed. Here, Peter captures casually clad people at the downtown cinema standing to attention for the National Anthem, a nightly ritual before each film; a soldier visiting the window of The Jerk House, a Jamaican restaurant run by Pentagon contract workers; and the base’s own souvenir shop, offering a selection of T-shirts illustrating beach life, fishing trips and scuba-diving at Guantanamo.
You could be forgiven for not knowing that the world’s most infamous terror suspects are housed within Guantanamo’s perimeter, for there is no mention of the detainees hidden in its shadows.
Editor's note: Although based in Miami, Carol Rosenberg spends long stretches at Guantanamo reporting on the base, prison and war crimes tribunals for the Miami Herald. She estimates she has spent well beyond a thousand nights there, mostly in a crude tent city where the military houses the journalists who report on the tribunals.
Words: Carol Rosenberg
From Issue Two of Us of America