A Bumpy Application to Guantanamo

A fellow law professor cautioned me when I told him I was applying to visit Guantanamo. "After they strap you in, they announce that the next bathroom stop is at Guantanamo. There are no bathrooms on the ten-seater propeller aircraft. And the bumpy flight is over three hours."

The flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Guantanamo Naval Base is indeed over three hours. The island of Cuba is long and narrow, and Guantanamo is at the southern tip. Since the aircraft is not permitted to fly in Cuban airspace, it must take the circuitous route around the island.

Applying to visit Guantanamo was even more bumpy and circuitous than the flight itself.

Two classes of people are permitted to visit the Guantanamo Naval Base: members of the media and "habeas lawyers." "Habeas lawyers" -- the term is often used disparagingly by the administration -- represent the detainees.

I applied to visit Guantanamo as an author, writing a book for the University of California Press about detentions without due process and the treatment of enemy combatants.

I asked a law student and research assistant, Jody Taliaferro, to help me set up a visit to Guantanamo. At first, she had difficulty finding the contact person. But finally she reached a Pentagon spokesperson. She emailed me:

"I am happy to report that we are definitely on the right path. However, that said, it is a pretty intimidating path!"

Intimidating, it was. Jody recounted that, "when I explained who I was and what I was doing on your behalf, the spokesperson asked for your information (full name, university) which I could hear him typing in. He then wanted to know if you had already written anything on Guantanamo and if so, what. I said that you had written a law review article that was in the publication process. He asked me to obtain a copy and mail it to him."

Since my article takes an unpopular stance with the administration, I was not eager to send it to the Pentagon official without going through proper channels. The article argues that the term "enemy combatant" is an illegitimate term that the administration adopted after 9/11 to circumvent the Geneva Conventions and the United States constitution and thereby give itself license to mistreat, it not torture, detainees.

My friends and colleagues t the law school were convinced that if the Pentagon staff read the piece, they would never grant me permission to visit Guantanamo.

Jody called the spokesperson and again asked him to outline the Pentagon's policies and procedures for allowing journalists to travel to Guantanamo. According to Jody, "he said that he would have to find out what your 'history, sympathies and interest were in Guantanamo.'" When she inquired as how that was relevant, he replied, "You know exactly what I mean."

A few days later, he admitted that he had no official policy in place and no established procedures, but that he would "figure something out."

Apparently, he did. The next morning, another and more accommodating military officer sent Jody an email with the subject line, "Greetings from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba." The email read, "I can help you with your interest in visiting our operation."

There were three steps required in obtaining permission for visiting Guantanamo. They included my review of the ground rules for the visit; my submission of "vital information" in order for the military could run a background check; and my selection of the dates of travel. The officer also said that it was his "pleasure" to assist in my obtaining access and that he was concerned in "changing the image" of Guantanamo.

The following day, another officer at Guantanamo sent an email requesting my personal information, including my social security and passport numbers, date and place of birth, eye and hair color, height and weight and my three most recent writings, including my article on enemy combatants. Seemingly out of the blue, this email closed with two quotes from the New Testament.

The first read, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him," from 1 Cor. 2:9. The second read, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows," from Galatians 6:7.

Somehow, the quaint notion of separation of church and state had not filtered down to the base at Guantanamo.

Presumably to assist in filling out the form, the email included a "Vital Template Table" attachment. When I opened it, I was shocked to find someone's personal information, including his social security and passport numbers and date and place of birth. Jody phoned the number in the template to see whether he was a real person. We could not believe that someone at Guantanamo could have made such a mistake.

The person whose name was on the template answered the phone.

"How did you get my number?" he asked. Jody told him. He was a photographer who had applied to visit the base.

Although the photographer was annoyed that the military had attached his personal data to the email, he was gracious, helpful and quite a character. As the end of the conversation, he generously offered Jody his email address, so that she could contact him again.

"I already have it!" Jody replied.

Since then, he has visited Guantanamo and has offered to provide a photograph for my book.

In the meantime, I asked Jody to inform the Pentagon that we had received the attachment with the photographer's information.

The next day, a different officer at Guantanamo resent the same request for information without the religious quotes or the attachment. This new person was very helpful in moving the process along. However, when I filled out the application form, I could not help but be concerned that someone might forward my personal information to future applicants.

A few weeks later, we received the news: "The professor's visit to Guantanamo Bay has been approved."

Next comes the three-hour, no bathroom break, bumpy and circuitous ride to that surreal place they call Guantanamo.