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Guantánamo Is Still “a Black Hole of Secrecy”

John Ryan, a legal affairs journalist, often sits alone in the front row of the court gallery during pretrial hearings at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Three panes of glass separate him from the five men accused of orchestrating the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as the defense and prosecution lawyers, judge, guards, court staff, and witnesses. Television monitors relay the scene and audio with a 40-second delay, should any classified information be uttered, which is flagged by a flashing red light behind the judge’s bench. “It’s a little bit disjointed,” Ryan said. “I think it is important just to be there. It’s hard to articulate. It just feels weird to me that the front row would be empty.”

For the past six years, Ryan, the cofounder and editor of the legal affairs publication Lawdragon, has been following the pretrial hearings over an event that “changed the course of global history” and led to the creation of the prison where the court is located, a place Ryan now calls his “second home.” Much of the recent deliberations have focused on whether testimony obtained using torture—or what the United States government called “enhanced interrogation techniques”—can be used at trial.

Gitmo once drew international outrage, and American and international reporters flocked to the scene. Twenty years on, it rarely sees journalists except on anniversaries, like last year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Sometimes Ryan and veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg, now at The New York Times, are the only journalists at the camp. I asked Ryan whether the public still cares: “I don’t see it. There are elements of the public that do, but I think it’s a pretty small number, and I think it’s really just outside what anyone is caring or thinking about.”

Twenty years have passed since the first prisoners landed blindfolded in orange jumpsuits and were cuffed and caged in the now-closed Camp X-Ray on the United States naval base in Cuba. Today, 39 men live in the prison, which once held 780—only 12 of them have been charged with war crimes, including the five who will face trial for the September 11 attacks.

While Ryan said it is important that a journalist be present for legal proceedings, he also said he was “hooked” on the story, much like a handful of others who have covered Gitmo over the years. By filing countless Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, these journalists and academics have shaped the public record on the prison that the United States government has hidden from public view. But recent reports of plans to build a new courtroom in Guantánamo, without a viewing gallery, have raised concerns about further restrictions on press access. “The larger concern is if the Pentagon views that video feeds can substitute for in-person viewing, they could use that rationale for limiting attendance on Guantánamo for legal proceedings more broadly,” Ryan said.

While proceedings can be viewed via live video feeds in the Pentagon and at Fort Meade in Maryland, Ryan said details are lost, such as a view of the whole courtroom—and when information deemed to be classified is uttered, the video feed is cut, which is part of the reason he is in court so regularly. (In January 2013, the CIA remotely cut a live video feed during a court proceeding, but a judge ruled that it could not do so again).

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