Why Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Mustn’t Be Destroyed


One of the photos taken on the day Guantanamo opened, January 11, 2002, by Shane T. McCoy of the US Navy.

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On March 6, indefatigable Guantánamo chronicler Carol Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, reported that the Pentagon “plans to tear down Camp X-Ray, a weed-filled warren of chain-link-fence cells where the Bush administration held its first 311 war-on-terror prisoners at Guantánamo — and famously released a photo of kneeling captives in orange jumpsuits that stirred allegations of torture.”

Rosenberg added that, for many years, the prison’s various commanders had said that the site “was under a federal court protective order and could not be razed.” However, on March 5, Justice Department attorney Andrew Warden wrote to lawyers who represent Guantánamo prisoners, informing them that “the FBI has created an interactive, simulated three-dimensional, digital virtual tour of Camp X-Ray that shows all areas of the camp where detainees were held, interrogated, or otherwise present.”

Rosenberg added that “Trump administration attorneys consider it a suitable substitute,” and also explained that, although the prison supposedly closed in April 2002, when the first more permanent cells of Camp Delta were erected, it was used later in 2002 for the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi prisoner regarded as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. Just before George W. Bush left office, Susan Crawford, the convening authority of the military commission trial system set up under Bush at Guantánamo, explained to the Washington Post that she had refused to have al-Qahtani prosecuted because of the torture to which he was subjected, which included sleep deprivation, being threatened by dogs, sexual abuse, forced nudity, being shackled in painful positions, and being physically beaten.

Rosenberg also noted that Ahmed al-Darbi, another Saudi prisoner, who was supposed to have been sent back to Saudi Arabia five weeks ago under the terms a 2014 plea deal, only arrived at Guantánamo in March 2003, but “testified at a recent deposition that guards threatened him with time at Camp X-Ray for failing to cooperate with his captors.”

The proposal to raze a site protected by a judge because a virtual 3D model of it has been created is a very modern story, and cheerleaders for technology’s possibilities are presumably, therefore, unable to grasp that a virtual simulation is no substitute for reality. However, others paying close attention very vigorously disagree.

In the Guardian, Liz Ševčenko, the director of the Humanities Action Lab at Rutgers University-Newark, and the founding director of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, wrote a powerful article entitled, “Destroying the notorious Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo is a huge mistake,” in which she declared that “[p]reserving sites with the most shameful or contested histories is critical for building democracy.”

Ševčenko is particularly well-equipped to make this kind of analysis, because, in addition to her work with the the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, which “seeks to build public awareness of the long history of the US naval station at Guantánamo, Bay, Cuba, and foster dialogue on the future of this place and the policies it shapes.,” she is the founding director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, “a network of historic sites that foster public dialogue on pressing contemporary issues, which started in 1999 as a meeting of nine sites under the auspices of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and under her leadership has grown to an independent organization with over 250 members in more than 40 countries.”

In her article, she asserted that “[d]estroying the physical structure of Camp X-Ray would destroy both vital legal evidence and the foundation of our future conscience,” adding:

Across the world, governments and grassroots communities alike have recognised that preserving sites of their most shameful or contested histories is critical for building democracy. Auschwitz and other concentration camps were preserved within two years of the end of the second world war; the Argentinian government, under pressure from civil society, saved hundreds of clandestine detention sites as part of its transition from military dictatorship; South Africa even constructed its first democratic constitutional court on the site of an apartheid-era prison, so that decisions about the future of justice in the country could be made with this physical reminder of past struggles. In 2005, the UN commission on human rights established the “duty to preserve memory” as an obligation of states to combat impunity.

She also stated:

Some might argue that these sites represent histories their societies have universally denounced, and which are firmly in the past, whereas Guantánamo remains a lightning rod for controversy and is still in active use. But it is even more important to preserve sites of contested memory. Contested sites of violence and trauma become vital places to visit and provide an opportunity to revisit the forensic evidence of what actually happened, as understanding evolves with new study and technologies. But perhaps even more importantly, the physical sites and structures have unique capacity to catalyse ongoing dialogue on the implications of what took place there.

Preserving Camp X-Ray is critical no matter what you believe about Guantánamo. Camp X-Ray must be saved not because there is consensus about what happened there and what it means – but precisely because there isn’t. A government-commissioned digital reconstruction is insufficient should someone wish to demonstrate examples of humane treatment of detainees at Camp X-Ray, or contest allegations of torture there, or open real dialogue on lessons of the war on terror.

Delving further back into history, Ševčenko also explained:

Guantánamo has been forgotten before, with disastrous policy consequences. America’s aggressive amnesia about the site has enabled more than a century of use, reuse and abuse of the US naval base. In the 1990s, Guantánamo was even “closed” twice to great public fanfare. After a massive social movement and legal battle, a US district court judge in 1993 declared the Haitian refugee tent city on Guantánamo a “HIV prison camp” and ordered it shut. Barely a year later, another camp went up to house an even greater influx of Cuban refugees, also trapped in indefinite detention. In 1996, after an intense public campaign led by US-based Cuban exiles, including with a concert on the base by Gloria Estefan, the last refugee was released. Prescient refugee journalist Mario Pedro Graverán observed: “We must remember that the camps of Guantánamo are closing, but Guantánamo Bay is a painful story that’s not over yet.” Six years later, the first “enemy combatants” were brought to Camp X-Ray, to facilities first constructed for Haitians.

Preservation need not be impractical. Guantánamo’s detention facilities are extensive and sprawling. But other governments who faced the challenge of preserving vast prison complexes for posterity, from Northern Ireland and South Africa to Argentina, chose to save specific buildings, preceded by careful study and evidence collection.

Ševčenko closed her article by stating:

Only the Pentagon can stop the bulldozers. But responsibility for remembering Guantánamo falls on all of us. None of the places we now take for granted, from Auschwitz to Robben Island, were saved without a fight. In the face of so many immediate crises – including the fate of the 41 captives who remain at Guantánamo – it can be hard to focus on building the conscience of future generations. But without the foundation of sites like Camp X-Ray, we’ll never have the chance to try.

However, in her penultimate paragraph, she also pointed out how the US authorities have already destroyed numerous other detention sites that form a key part of the history of its brutal and ill-conceived “war on terror.” As she stated, “In the Guantánamo death penalty trials of those accused of planning 9/11, the military judge recently approved the secret destruction of a CIA black site, despite an existing court order preserving it.”

The judge in question is Army Col. James L. Pohl, and as Carol Rosenberg reported in January, “Court filings and in-court presentations showed the judge, through the prosecution, authorized the spy agency to dismantle the overseas site — in a nation that has never been disclosed — at a time when Pohl publicly had a protection order on any surviving remnants of the George W. Bush administration era overseas prison network. However, prosecutors using their national security powers got behind-the-scenes, unilateral permission from the judge to give the defense attorneys photographs and some sort of 3D diagram as a substitute for the real thing.”

In an assessment that the Justice Department presumably took on board for its Camp X-Ray decision, Judge Pohl ruled that defense attorneys had failed to show that “the physical evidence is of such central importance to an issue that is essential to a fair trial, or that there is no adequate substitute for the physical evidence.”

Two US soldiers outside Bagram prison in Afghanistan.At this point it is worth reflecting that Guantánamo is probably one of the last sites remaining that can provide both “vital legal evidence and the foundation of our future conscience.” A place that haunted prisoners for years — Bagram, in Afghanistan, where the use of torture was rife, and numerous prisoners died in US custody — was completely destroyed and rebuilt by the US in 2009. Used by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989 (although it was initially built by the US in the 1950s), it had been the main prison for processing prisoners for Guantánamo in 2002-03, and had also housed a secretive CIA-run “black site,” and yet now all that remains of it are memories and the odd photo like the one here. Others from my archive include the only photo from inside the prison, of a barbed-wire-encrusted “sally port,” a photo of a guard in a gun outpost, this photo of the main building and tents, and another from a different angle.

Another key site of US torture and abuse is Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where photos of abuse by soldiers, following instructions from higher up the chain of command to keep prisoners awake by abusing them, shocked the world when they were leaked to the public in April 2004, and did considerable damage to the US’s claims that its “war on terror” was somehow humane, when it was clearly no such thing.

In the wake of the scandal, the US threatened to destroy the site, which, ironically, was formerly Saddam Hussein’s main political prison, where, as Al-Jazeera reported in 2014, “Political prisoners, mostly from the persecuted Shia majority, were routinely executed in the hundreds during his decades-long rule of the country.” Al-Jazeera’s report added, “As US military forces approached Baghdad, Hussein ordered a final round of executions. When US forces came upon Abu Ghraib, they found the blindfolded bodies of prisoners in striped uniforms piled in rooms beside the hanging chambers, or lying in ditches inside the complex.”

However, the US never followed through on their promise to destroy the prison, and it was, instead, handed over to the post-invasion Iraqi government, who renamed it Baghdad Central Prison, and kept it open from 2006 to 2014, finally closing it down because of their inability to secure the area in which it is located. As Al-Jazeera reported, “A mass breakout orchestrated by Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni fighters in 2013 led to the escape of hundreds of prisoners and a shootout that killed over 50 prisoners and members of the Iraqi security forces.”

Ironically, while it seems that the buildings of Abu Ghraib, used to such horrific effect by both Saddam Hussein and US forces, may still be standing, it is difficult to imagine them being reclaimed to be used either legally or as part of Liz Ševčenko’s sites of conscience — a conclusion that must surely serve as an ironic reflection on the failure of the US-led invasion 15 years ago.

And then there is Guantánamo itself, where Camp X-Ray is not the only site that the authorities want to — or have — destroyed. In the last months of the Obama presidency, for example, the military announced its intention to destroy part of Camp 5, a block of solid-walled isolation cells, which was no longer in use. Specifically, the intention was to destroy Alpha Block, and replace it with a new medical complex, along the way removing a place well-known to prisoners and their lawyers for keeping prisoners regarded as troublesome in complete isolation. It was there, on September 8, 2012, for example, that Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a mentally troubled Yemeni prisoner, reportedly died by taking an overdose of pills he had hoarded.

Latif was the last prisoner to date to die at Guantánamo, but as was first reported in 2010, former US military personnel have stated that the three alleged suicides in June 2006 were reported dead shortly after they had been taken off-base to a top-secret facility know only as “Camp No,” whose existence has never been formally acknowledged. It was possibly also known as Penny Lane, a companion to Strawberry Fields, a top-secret CIA “black site” that existed at Guantánamo from 2003-04.

I suspect that all these facilities have disappeared along with the global network of “black sites,” adding importance to the need to prevent the destruction of Camp X-Ray, not just for the evidence it can provide in the future of US wrongdoing, but also for its symbolism, as the first place that the US government publicly showed what it was doing to prisoners seized in its “war on terror” — and a place where the photos that were taken on that opening day, of orange-clad, sensory-deprived prisoners kneeling in the gravel, first indicated to perceptive observers that something had gone terrible wrong in the US’s response to 9/11.

Note: Please also check out Liz Ševčenko talking about the importance of preserving Camp X-Ray on CBC Radio.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the Pentagon’s recent announcement that it is planning to destroy Camp X-Ray, the outdoor cages that were Guantanamo’s first cells, despite an order by a judge to preserve the site, because – and no, this isn’t a joke – “the FBI has created an interactive, simulated three-dimensional, digital virtual tour of Camp X-Ray that shows all areas of the camp where detainees were held, interrogated, or otherwise present,” as Carol Rosenberg described it for the Miami Herald.
    I quote extensively from a great Guardian article arguing for Camp X-ray’s preservation by US academic Liz Ševčenko, who stated that, “Across the world, governments and grassroots communities alike have recognised that preserving sites of their most shameful or contested histories is critical for building democracy,” and who also notes the importance of “building the conscience of future generations.”
    I also discuss the destruction of CIA “black sites” and other destruction at Guantanamo, as well as the destruction of Bagram and the closure of Abu Ghraib, which, as far as I can ascertain, has not actually been physically destroyed, although the overall picture is one in which the US has successfully destroyed almost all the evidence of the grave crimes it has committed over the last 16 years in its brutal and ill-conceived “war on terror.”

  2. Tom says...

    What does the Cuban govt. think about Guantanamo continuing to be there? I know that legally the US signed a 99 year lease for the land. But when actual interviews are done with the military personnel there, it’s always presented as oh, it’s so hard for them being away from their families. They can never go off base and interact with Cuban civilians.

    Like any base, the military has contracts with various suppliers and companies to provide services to base personnel. Want Pizza Hut? It’s there. Taco Bell? It’s there. Psychologically, how do these fast food employees deal with being on a base like Guantanamo?

    Under Sec 1021 of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), if Trump reads my social media posts, emails or phone call transcripts and decides that I’m a “terrorist”, I can be arrested at any time and shipped off to a black site anywhere in the world forever. Would I be sent to Guantanamo?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tom. Actually, my understanding is that the lease has no one date, just when both parties agree to its termination, which, of course, will never happen while warmongers are in the White House.
    I suppose those working at Guantanamo must be obliged to marinade in the surreal small town American-ness of the base, but you’re right – it must be odd being so cut off from their surroundings.
    As for you being sent there, I still maintain that Americans have rights, and that Trump won’t get to send any Americans there, regardless of what Obama’s NDAA claims. It’s the foreigners like me who have to worry!

  4. Tom says...

    Actually both of us have to worry because of one key point in the NDAA. Anyone labelled a “terrorist” by Trump can be picked up at any time anywhere in the world. Or, Trump can decide to have them killed by all kinds of methods (drone strikes, JSOC assassination teams that Cheney started and others). They can be locked away in a black prison site anywhere in the world forever. This means there’s the action and then how to spin the results. Would Trump kill someone deemed a “terrorist” by a drone strike in the US? Legally he can. How would the public react? I don’t know.

    What gives the govt. protection? They can just say it’s “classified”. In their mind, that then justifies all of this. My family and friends are looking for me? Cops and others? Doesn’t matter. As long as they hide behind it’s classified, they’ll never have to answer any questions.

    Don’t you have similiar kind of laws in the UK? I know you have the Official Secrets Act. There’s also another one that allows the Home Secretary to sign a secret order authorizing various agents (MI5, MI6) to commit crimes to protect “national security”, and will never be held liable for them. I can’t remember the name of it. But I know it is a real law (and not some plot twist on “Spooks”).

    So I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. But that’s ok. Happy Easter.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Happy Easter to you too, Tom. You are, of course, correct to say that if our governments really want to disappear people secretly, there are ways in which they can do that. I do, however, think they’re generally unwilling to do that to citizens.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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