For more than two years, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, had been trying to persuade the Pentagon to provide access to Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are held amid extraordinarily tight security measures that span the naval station here. A few weeks back the Pentagon granted the request, inviting the ACLU and several other groups to witness the historic military trials scheduled to begin Tuesday morning with initial hearings.
But Romero and a representative of Amnesty International said they were surprised when they touched down here Saturday on a charter flight to find no one from the military to meet them. Or check their passports. Or dispatch bomb-sniffing dogs to screen their luggage. Or take their photographs for security badges. Instead, Romero and Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty, said they roamed around a portion of the base for nearly an hour, hoping to find someone -- anyone -- who could take them where they were supposed to go. Wherever that might be.
"I thought to myself, 'Finally, we had gotten to Guantanamo,' " Romero said. "I sure wasn't expecting this."
It would be 40 more hours before Romero and Musa received their security badges. In the meantime, they were detained Monday morning because they did not have security badges.
Red-faced military officials on Monday said the pair was not picked up because of a "communication breakdown." Although security was breached, the officials noted, the 585 detainees at Guantanamo Bay were confined in cage-like cells across a deep channel of water several miles away from Romero and Musa.
"We are doing our best to accommodate the international organizations while on Guantanamo," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jennifer D. Young. "However, our resources are limited and we ask for flexibility while we work out the kinks. . . . The international organizations are welcome guests."
Ever since the U.S. military began detaining suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, human rights and civil liberties groups have been petitioning the Pentagon for permission to visit the base. From the start, the military took members of the media on closely guided tours of the facilities here and permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect the prison camps and interview the detainees. The advocacy groups wanted to see firsthand what they had been condemning as a "legal black hole."
Earlier this year, after the Bush administration announced that military trials would begin in the cases of four suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, the advocacy groups asked the Pentagon if they could monitor the proceedings. Several weeks ago, they began receiving letters asking them to watch the first military commissions since World War II. In addition to the ACLU and Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and a representative of the American Bar Association were invited.
Normally, security at the Guantanamo Bay airport is intense. When nearly 50 reporters and photographers landed here Saturday, their luggage was screened by bomb-sniffing dogs. Some bags were pulled for hand searches. Military personnel carrying pump-action shotguns stood guard. The journalists were escorted into a room, where their passports were checked and photos taken. Before they were led away, they were ordered to wear at all times badges that read "ESCORT REQUIRED."
But when Romero and Jumana landed about 5:45 p.m. Saturday, they stood at the terminal for about 15 minutes, waiting for base personnel to introduce themselves. When no one did and a bus pulled up, they climbed aboard. They headed to the island's ferry terminal, where boats take military personnel, contractors, intelligence officers, journalists and others to the other side of Guantanamo Bay, where the detainees are housed.
At the ferry terminal, Romero and Jumana said, a contractor they met on the plane called his supervisor and tried to help. He had no luck, and the pair decided to call the base operator. "I said, 'I'm Anthony Romero and I'm the executive director of the ACLU. I'm here to observe the military commissions.' The operator didn't know anything," Romero said.
Romero and Jumana then looked through the materials they had received from the military and spotted phone numbers for the barracks where they were supposed to stay. They called. Romero repeated who he was and why he was there. "They said, 'I'm sorry. We don't have any reservations for you,' " he recounted. The pair then decided to call security. A woman in a small pickup truck drove into the ferry terminal parking lot.
"She said, 'We've been looking for you,' " Jumana recalled. "I said, 'We've been waiting for you.' " But the woman said she was there to pick up only Jumana. She did not know anything about Romero and summoned another vehicle to take them back to the airport for screening and processing.
By Monday morning -- 40 hours after they arrived -- Romero and Jumana still had not received security badges. When they tried to board a boat with the press corps for an 8 a.m. trip across the channel, they were stopped, along with Sam Zia-Zarifi of Human Rights Watch, who also had not received a badge. The three were detained for about 45 minutes, until they retrieved their passports from their hotel rooms.
Once they were on the other side of the island, a military officer greeted them and handed them security badges.
"At long last," Romero said, taking his badge.
"Sorry about that," the officer said.
Military officers then escorted Romero, Jumana and Zia-Zarifi away, informing them that they could not attend briefings, visit the prison camps with the press corps, or interview members of the military commission and prosecutors. Romero and the others would be permitted only to observe the military commissions.
"At first I thought this was funny," Romero said as he was led away. "I've lost my sense of humor."