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WASHINGTON — It was a scary, raw time just four months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the military at Guantánamo Bay received its first prisoners from the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had declared the isolated Navy outpost behind a Cuban minefield “the least worst place” to hold suspected Taliban and foreign fighters, most of whom had been handed over by local allies.
I found myself sitting in the midday sun on a small dusty rise above the base airstrip watching pairs of Marines walk 20 captives down the ramp of a now obsolete military “Starlifter” cargo plane.
A small knot of civilian reporters was permitted to watch, but not take photos, in exchange for sending a pool account to the Pentagon press corps. Here’s an excerpt:
2:55: First prisoner comes off. He is wearing a fluorescent orange jumpsuit, a shiny turquoise face mask, goggles, similar colored orange socks over white footwear, a brighter orange head cover that appeared to be a knit cap. His hands were manacled in front of him, and he limped. He was frisked and led, by at least two Marines, to the awaiting bus.
When I talk to people about that day, on the radio or to students, I say, “Close your eyes and imagine men in orange jumpsuits on their knees at Guantánamo Bay.”
You’ve probably seen a picture of it. A Navy photographer took it at Camp X-Ray on that very first day and the Pentagon released it about a week later, capturing a moment in history whose continuing use in the media has frustrated the military because, not only does it look like torture to some people, the military now houses its remaining 40 Guantánamo prisoners indoors.
The photo also haunted me at times, in a different way. The Pentagon called those first men “the worst of the worst” but refused to name them. Nearly from the start, I wondered: How do they know?
Four months to the day before their arrival, the 9/11 attacks had exposed the United States’ intelligence failures. Vice President Dick Cheney had said that the military “may well be given missions in connection with this overall task and strategy” and that “we’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” He called it “the dark side.”
Years would pass before I could put names to those first 20 men. It took triangulation: I compared sloppily produced weight charts of each prisoner, by number not name, with flawed early intelligence profiles that leaked in 2011, and then consulted sources, including old notes.
With the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the detention operation approaching, I decided to retrace what became of the men photographed on their knees and discovered this:
Nearly all of the original 20 are gone. The Bush administration repatriated eight of those Day 1 detainees. The Obama administration went on to transfer 10 more.
Now we know that the Bush administration had sent those it truly believed were “the worst of the worst” not to Guantánamo directly but to the secret C.I.A. prison network, the black sites. The White House announced in September 2006 that it had brought 14 “high-value detainees” from the dark side to Guantánamo.
Among them were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men who are accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. Charged twice, most recently in 2012, they have yet to go to trial.
Meantime, three of the men in that photo were part of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar whose agreement with the Trump administration led to the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. A fourth moves between Pakistan and Afghanistan, essentially functioning as a senior Taliban defense official.
I learned of the bleak existence of one man in the photo, Ibrahim Idris, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and other illnesses while in U.S. military custody, and was repatriated to become a shut-in at his mother’s home in Sudan. Then one day I got a message from Khartoum: “Tell that reporter he died.”
I wrote what I believe to be the first obituary of a former Guantánamo detainee to appear in The Times. All those who died before him were included in news articles.
I’ve covered the story continually since that first day, and I’ve been reflecting a lot on those first men, especially since President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan (except those guarding the U.S. Embassy) by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Afghanistan was where the flight carrying those first 20 men originated, and I was able to watch their arrival because the military understood that the mission was being carried out in the name of the American people, not just the U.S. military.
Now, it has been more than a year since a reporter set foot on that base, mostly because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the outpost has become more isolated than ever. Very few lawyers have visited the detainees, after undergoing a two-week quarantine, and a delegation of the International Red Cross has visited just once rather than four times a year.
Now we wait and wonder when, however belatedly, there will be a 9/11 trial. No new hearing dates have been set, and the case is once again awaiting a new military judge.
This has probably been the most secretive of all the years. The admiral in command of the prison took over in May 2019 and, unlike his predecessors, has never met a reporter there or permitted representatives of the media to visit the prison zone, which for years was a regular occurrence.
Back when the operation began, and the attacks of Sept. 11 were still a raw national trauma, the Marine general in charge could not always answer the reporters’ questions. But he understood our right to ask them, and did his best to answer.
This article was adapted from the At War newsletter. To sign up to receive it every week, go here.