Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
Pre-trial hearings in the case against five men accused of plotting the September 11 terror attacks resume Monday. Those hearings are being held off the U.S. mainland in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Access to the base is strictly controlled, and that made for some reporting challenges I never expected.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, often called Gitmo, for the lastest round of hearings. My trip began on a Sunday at Andrews Air Force Base, a few miles from Washington D.C. Reporters met in a parking lot, before the sun rose, just inside the base gate so a bomb-sniffing dog could check our luggage, recording equipment and microphones.
At the airport, we boarded a navy blue school bus that drove us to our plane. It was a chartered commercial flight — Miami Air International — complete with flight attendants, a meal and even a movie, Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.
As we landed, the flight attendant welcomed us, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Guantanamo Bay. Please remain seated with your seat-belts fastened until we’ve come to a complete stop and the captain has switched off the fasten seat belt sign."
Once on the ground, security closed in. I showed my passport, but regrettably they don’t stamp it. There was a security briefing. And I got a Guantanamo press badge that had to be with you at all times, but returned before you left the island.
Then we hopped on the ferry.
The water was bright green. It was windy and I could feel the sun burn my face.
We headed to the media operations center, which sits across from the court facility. It's housed in an old airplane hanger where there are now rooms built out with desks, telephones and flat screen televisions that broadcast cable news and the closed circuit court feed from which most reporters watch the legal rangling. The rooms were freezing. It may have been 80 degrees outside, but inside I was piling on scarves and sweaters.
Outside, two friendly public information officers, dressed in fatigues, took us around to show us the three spots where we could take official photographs. One was the Camp Justice Sign, but only between two designated flagpoles. In the background, the photo captures the tents that were our home for the week.
These weren't your average camping tents. They sat on a platform and had wooden press-board partitions that separated the six sleeping areas. Running down the ceiling center was a high-powered, high volume air conditioner — to keep away bugs and banana rats.
There are separate tents for the latrines and the showers. Both have signs posted on the door that read "non-potable water — not for human consumption."
For the families of September 11 victims, here to watch the trial, there are separate, nicer accommodations.
We met them for the first time on Sunday, and they told us who they'd lost and why they had come. Some of them just get choked up.
Matthew Sellitto, who lost his son, was angry that so few people were paying attention to the proceedings.
"I’m dumbfounded by it," he told us, as his eyes turn red and his voice cracks. "I don’t understand it. This should be page one in our home and to me the rest of the world is more concerned. I don’t understand."
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg, who has covered this story from the beginning, attempted to explain, "I mean, you’ve experienced it. It’s a bit of a schlep coming down here."
Back in Maryland, there were a couple dozen of other reporters watching the hearings through a closed circuit feed but, Rosenberg added, but after a week in Guantanamo, the families might understand, "why these are hard things to cover for the general public. I'm not defending it, I'm just trying to explain it."
This is a hard story to cover.
Pre-trial hearings involve technical, legal motions. It's all important. But every legal expert I've talked to said the actual trial is at least a year off. So these motions don't always seem like news.
But this trial is about the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.
At one point I was sitting in the courtroom about 20 feet away from defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other men accused of planning a crime that I remember watching unfold from the 60th floor of Chase Plaza in lower Manhattan — during my previous career. The reporter in me notes what they wear: military jackets over traditional clothing. Khalid Sheik Mohammed has grown a long beard, which is dyed burnt orange.
But I don't really feel anything looking at them.
More than anything else, I'm aware of how strange the proceedings feel happening live in front of me, but being broadcast on delay through a closed circuit television.
The story is this trial, but it’s also the experience of being in this place. It’s anxiety inducing. There's always this chance you could break a rule and get kicked out or banned from future reporting. So you have to follow their rules — accept the limited access within the base or not being allowed to tour the detention facilities.
It’s also a week without any break from this assignment. There’s no going home and unwinding. You’re always on.
But that's just kind of what life is like at Guantanamo. People are always watching you there, regardless of whether or not people are paying attention here.