On the southeastern tip of Cuba, on a remote United States military base, at the end of a long road just past an old garbage pit, sits Camp X-Ray. In early 2002, X-Ray was the first detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to house detainees captured in the “War on Terror.” When people think of Guantanamo, it’s generally X-Ray that they picture: detainees in orange jumpsuits, dog cages, blindfolds, torture. It officially closed after only three months, but the damage to both the detainees and the values of the United States had already been done.
Last week, reports emerged that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has notified Guantanamo defense attorneys that a prior protective order preserving Camp X-Ray is no longer in effect; the camp can now be demolished. Government officials see Camp X-Ray as an eyesore that has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair over the last 16 years. Having been to Camp X-Ray, I can’t say that I disagree; the weeds and vines of the Cuban countryside are trying to reclaim the abandoned kennels and guard towers. But the argument for preservation is not about aesthetics.
Camp X-Ray is physical evidence of the United States’ Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Of the 41 detainees still held at Guantanamo, fewer than half arrived before X-Ray was closed, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. Among those who remain are Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi, who is currently challenging his detention before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Another detainee, Mohammed al Qahtani, had his charges dismissed because of the torture he endured at X-Ray. If charges are ever refiled against him, or against any other detainee who was held there, his defense team would certainly need access to the facility.
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald reported that DOJ attorney Andrew Warden told defense teams 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.” Two weeks ago, before the news about X-Ray was public, we observed the defense attorneys for alleged 9/11 co-conspirator Ammar al-Baluchi assert the importance of being able to physically go to former black sites. There’s also no way for the defense teams to guarantee that the government properly documented information they may need in the future.
Another problem with the government’s solution is just that: it is the government’s solution. The same government prosecuting the defendants before the military commissions is deciding what evidence defense attorneys have access to (I wrote about this issue here just five weeks ago). It is a problem that has long undermined the entire military commissions process and caused months of delay. Defense attorneys have had to fight for access to evidence necessary to properly represent their clients — in other words, to do their jobs. It is all but certain that the recent decision on X-Ray will further delay cases that have already lasted years longer than they should have.
As if the destruction of physical evidence wasn’t bad enough, the X-Ray decision highlights another deeply troubling habit of the U.S. government: the attempt to whitewash our history of torture. To prevent future atrocities, it is imperative that we remember and come to terms with past atrocities. By allowing the destruction of black sites, or attempting to bury the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s ‘Torture Report,’ the United States is not coming to terms with anything — we’re simply ignoring it. Torturing people damaged our relationships with allies, risked the safety of our troops, and explicitly violated our laws and values. We must acknowledge these facts and do everything in our power to see that it never happens again.
Seeing Camp X-Ray for the first time was a deeply unsettling experience. It was a feeling like the one that I had when I visited Srebrenica. I had seen pictures before I went, of course, but the weight and significance of the physical space couldn’t be conveyed through images. It doesn’t matter that X-Ray might be visually unattractive; if that’s the government’s best argument, I have a weed whacker it can borrow. What matters is that it represents a morally and legally bankrupt period of our history and is critical physical evidence in ongoing litigation. Destroying it would be a serious mistake.