Guantánamo: An oral history

On the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees, Vanity Fair set out to compile an oral history of Guantánamo.

Pierre-Richard Prosper: On Thanksgiving weekend, I received a phone call informing me that we had just captured approximately 300 al-Qaeda and Taliban. I asked all our assistant secretaries and regional bureaus to canvass literally the world to begin to look at what options we had as to where a detention facility could be established. We began to eliminate places for different reasons. One day, in one of our meetings, we sat there puzzled as places continued to be eliminated. An individual from the Department of Justice effectively blurted out, What about Guantánamo? The individual then began to make clear that Guantánamo now is an empty facility, that there’s a basic structure there, that it’s a place that had been used to hold Haitian and Cuban migrants, and that U.S. courts in the past have given the executive branch great deference in what it did in Guantánamo.

William Howard Taft IV: At the time we selected Guantánamo we were adhering to the Geneva Conventions, and no decision had been made not to. I can’t say as to everyone, but on our side [the State Department] we were expecting and certainly quite comfortable with the use of the Geneva Conventions. It was the normal way our military had operated for 50 years.

December 27, 2001: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announces that War on Terror prisoners will indeed be sent to Guantánamo. Guantánamo, he will later say, is to be the place of confinement for “the worst of the worst.” A Red Cross presence at U.S. detention facilities has long been routine. It is not what the administration has in mind for Guantánamo, however. Manuel Supervielle was the chief military lawyer—the staff judge advocate—at Southern Command, in Miami.

Manuel Supervielle: I called Geneva, and I said, I need to speak with head of operations. I introduced myself, and I said, You may have heard the news that they’re going to be receiving some detainees in Guantánamo in the not too distant future. Would you all be interested in sending a team down there to observe?

There’s a really long pause, and the guy says, Well, yes, thank you, that’s very kind of you. He sounded quite startled. I don’t think he was expecting a phone call from U.S. jag [Judge Advocate General] at SouthCom.

During that first week of January I had a conversation with Jane Dalton [counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs]. I remember saying to her, By the way, I called the I.C.R.C. a few days ago, and asked them if they wanted to come to Guantánamo. She said, You did what? In a much more excited way than that. She said, Manny, what were you thinking? I said, Look, you all have given us guidance to follow the principles of the Geneva Conventions. Would you not agree that the most important principle is transparency? The discussion mostly turned on her anticipating a very negative reaction from D.O.D., from general counsel [Jim Haynes].

January 9, 2002: Getting Guantánamo ready for an influx of detainees requires a crash effort by the military. Meanwhile, the administration lays the groundwork to abandon the Geneva Conventions. Over the next decade, Carol Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, will spend more time at Guantánamo than any other reporter. She is there when it opens.

Carol Rosenberg: There were 40 cells made from chain-link fencing sitting on a cement slab and next to a dump, and inside it there were Seabees—Navy engineers—slamming new cages into the ground and building them as fast as they could in one corner. And Marines in another corner were rehearsing how to handle potentially fanatical, suicidal, dangerous terrorists, with one Marine playing the role of the prisoner being shackled and manacled and pushed up against the fence and handled the way a Marine would handle someone who’s the enemy, and other Marines practicing the roles of guards.

William Howard Taft IV: In early January we got a draft memorandum from the Department of Justice, which was arguing that it was not necessary for the military to comply with the Geneva Conventions in this particular conflict. It was quite a lengthy memo, and was sent to us for comment. We disagreed with it and wrote a fairly lengthy memo back.

January 11, 2002: A group of 20 prisoners arrives at Guantánamo from Afghanistan. They are housed in open-air cages—hence the name Camp X-Ray. The International Committee of the Red Cross makes its first visit six days later. The number of detainees will grow into the several hundreds during the next several years. Army Private Brandon Neely witnessed the arrival of the first detainees.

Brandon Neely: The main gate to Camp X-Ray opened, and the bus pulls up. I’m standing 20 feet away. You could hear the Marines on the bus yelling at the detainees. You know, shut up. Look down. You’re now property of the United States of America. [Continue reading…]

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