The Strange World Of Guantanamo Bay's War Court

Feb 25, 2015
Originally published on February 26, 2015 5:14 pm

From the tent city it's set up in, to a judge banning defense lawyers from mentioning a former CIA interpreter's having appeared before all of them, the war court in Guantanamo Bay borders on surreal. FBI infiltrations and hidden microphones — and a pile of evidence that remains classified — have hobbled the effort to try five Sept. 11 defendants who face death penalties should guilty verdicts ever be reached.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Every few weeks, a plane chartered by the Pentagon flies three hours from Washington D.C. to a Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On board there's a military judge, a team of prosecutors, an even bigger team of defense lawyers, court reporters and journalists. It's a kind of traveling court that's required to visit the five defendants in the 9/11 case - required because Congress has banned the detainees from setting foot in the United States. NPR's David Welna was part of that entourage to Guantanamo earlier this month, and he joins us now to talk about some of the strange things he found when he got there. Welcome, David.


MCEVERS: This was your first trip to Guantanamo. And, you know, here's this little piece of land that feels like it's a part of America on the tip of Cuba. I mean, what struck you about it?

WELNA: Well, Kelly, you know, it really did look and feel like I was still in the U.S., but legally, I was not, which is precisely why the U.S. has been able to hold the more than 100 detainees who are still there for more than a decade. We had to take a ferry then to get to the other side of Guantanamo Bay because driving around the bay would mean having to go enter the rest of Cuba. And that's a no-go zone.

MCEVERS: So what happened when you got there?

WELNA: Well, once you get there, you find a huge metal shed. It's what they call an expeditionary legal complex. It's essentially like a huge trailer with a snoop-proof courtroom inside. Next to it is a sprawling tent city on an abandoned airstrip. That's where we reporters camped out for the week.

MCEVERS: Wow, so you were there to cover the latest session of the death penalty proceedings against these five alleged 9/11 co-conspirators. I mean, how are the rules in the Guantanamo courtroom different from what you might find in a civilian court?

WELNA: Well, this is a very restricted courtroom. In fact, we observers - reporters and others - had to sit behind a thick glass wall. And the proceedings in the courtroom were actually on a time delay of 40 seconds. And there was a sensor sitting next to the judge, who could push a button to keep that sound out.

And one of the first things that we saw happen in the courtroom was a defendant stood up and he told the judge that this new interpreter who is sitting next to him was somebody he recognized from a CIA interrogation center that he'd been held in. That caused quite a ruckus. In fact, the official transcript came out with the name of the person in it. They later tried to reel that in, sending out a second transcript blacking his name out. And the prosecution said that the fact that this person had been in the courtroom was now classified.

MCEVERS: This case has been going on nearly three years now and it's nowhere near the trial stage. I mean, is this need for secrecy you just talked about one reason that things are taking so long?

WELNA: Yes. There are many things that the defense wants to see in the courtroom and talk about in the courtroom. But the prosecution says no, we have to see whether national security considerations are involved. And in fact, one of the lawyers, Cheryl Bormann, talked about an incident that happened early in this three-year process.


CHERYL BORMANN: We had to file a motion to compel the government to give us a report entitled "9/11: The Plot And The Plotters." Now, one would think that might be relevant to, well, the case charging five men with plotting 9/11 and the government alleging they were the plotters. But the prosecution's argument against providing that to us was that it wasn't relevant to our case.

WELNA: Well, the defense actually did get that report in the end. The judge ruled that they should have it.

MCEVERS: And David, you saw these five 9/11 defendants in court. Did you see any of the other 117 men who are still being held in Guantanamo?

WELNA: I did not. I did see two camps where most of them are being held. Many of them have been actually preapproved for being released. They just need countries to take them. But what the so-called high-value detainees - among them the 9/11 defendants - are held at a separate camp called Camp Seven. That's a place that we were not allowed to see. In fact, officials wouldn't even talk about it. And it's not clear what's going to happen to the people there. In fact, someone who's been watching these military commissions said jokingly that maybe the solution for these people who can't be tried is to give Guantanamo Bay back to Cuba and say take these defendants with it.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's David Welna. He's just back from a trip to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.