GETTING TO GTMO: “The Restroom is in Guantánamo”
Although the process of obtaining security clearance took a long time, it required less time and effort than it did to arrange for the first visit to Guantánamo. The security clearance required filling out a form and sending it in. The waiting and negotiating, and arguing, and finding a translator, and getting the translator clearance, that took half a year.
Everyone always wants to know how we got to the base.
To start, you call Andrew Warden of the Justice Department who tells you that the dates you want are impossible. When you finally negotiate dates, always weeks and weeks in advance, all cancelable by the DOD without any discernable reason, then you have to complete the Department of Defense trip form. You have to supply the name and social security number of everyone traveling, lawyers and interpreters, the date, flight number and airlines used. Then and only then can the Department of Defense make its final decision: whether or not to authorize the trip. If the DOD decides that everything is in order, then you are given a theater and country clearance form. The theater and country forms are single spaced military words and phrases. I could never make heads or tails of it, but the soldiers at the base could apparently do so merely by glancing at it.
The only flights to Guantánamo originate at Ft. Lauderdale on either Air Sunshine or Lynx Air. These are the only commercial airlines approved by the military to land at the base. Both airlines are clearly operating on shoestring budgets. But experience has demonstrated that Lynx Air is the preferred carrier.
Needless to say, on trips to Guantánamo Bay the airlines only permit passengers that have been approved by the DOD. At the ticket counter, in an isolated and seemingly dimlit corner of the basement of the Ft. Lauderdale airport, the ticket agent/baggage handler (and presumably back up pilot) makes everyone produce their passport and theater and country clearances when they arrived at the gate.
The propeller planes carry a dozen people, have irregular schedules, lack a bathroom and have a strict weight requirement.
You know you are not flying first class when the pilot/steward/baggage handler (the same person) gives people specific seats only after asking for their weight. They also plant a cooler full of soda and water right in the middle of the plane for people to help themselves. A clever trick, that, on a plane with no bathrooms. Fool me once….
At one point I was eager to fly out at night on the five pm flight but could not do so, not because there was not a seat but because there was too much weight—mine. I had to be in Los Angeles the next day for a trial the day after, and it screwed up my schedule.
I skipped dinner that night to make sure I was on the plane the next day.
These flights were used by anyone visiting GTMO—Department of Defense personnel on leave, military contractors of all sorts (including interrogators), press, support people for the base and lots of other non-military technical support.
There were firms that for a period of time had so many clients and so many lawyers that it was economical for them to charter a private plane. This had to be coordinated with GTMO as well. That opportunity, for those fortunate few, was closed down by the military shortly after it became clear that this service was useful to the members of the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association.
Even getting on the plane is difficult, even if you don’t exceed the weight restriction. At six feet five and 230 pounds, life can be complicated.
The number of seats was limited and the window to obtain them closes very quickly. Approval from the DOD was usually granted only after you arranged your flight information, and the tickets are nonrefundable, so you purchase your ticket and cross your fingers with the hope that the DOJ would process your application promptly and the DOD would clear it. Even if after all of the juggling you actually have tickets, a flight, and clearance, the flights to Guantánamo leave at 1:30, so people from the West Coast have to arrive the night before.
Returning from Guantánamo is infinitely easier and more satisfying. One always felt lighter leaving than arriving, but why that is, given the limited foods available at the Navy Galley near our housing at Guantánamo (basically, your only option) is a mystery. Perhaps it is because when you are in Guantánamo you feel like you are in a third world country, always being watched and feeling out of place.
The flights leaving Guantánamo were often early. An eight am flight would allow anyone to catch a mid afternoon flight to anywhere in the United States. There are few direct flights from Ft. Lauderdale other than to key cities on the East Coast. Lawyers from the West and Midwest would often go to D.C. immediately to try to prepare their notes for security clearance and then fly back home. The process is very time consuming, expensive and tiring, not to mention boring. The same, however, cannot be said about the flight itself.
The flight takes four hours, because the plane must fly all the way around Cuba to the base, and Cuba is not a small island. The planes are propeller planes without air conditioning. They are extremely loud, and after your first flight, you wear ear plugs. When the plane is on the tarmac or approaching Cuba, it is incredibly hot and humid. Once it reaches 12,000 feet, it cools off and the temperature is quite pleasant.
Once everyone is seated the co-pilot makes his announcements:
“Seat belts must be worn at all times, There are soft drinks available in a cooler which can be slid up and down the aisle, and the restroom is in Guantánamo Bay.”
The planes are not reassuring. There are eight seats and a bench across the back of most of the planes.
In one Air Sunshine plane, I was assigned to the very front seat. The third seat on the port side was simply missing. For balance purposes I was moved back one seat. Once in that seat, I fastened my seat belt and leaned back…whereupon the back of my seat broke and fell off. I was moved to my third seat, the bench in back. While there, a man several seats in front on the starboard side leaned back in his seat and his seat back broke, too: two seats broken and one that had scarpered.
On one flight we were advised midway through that we were going to have a stop over in Exuma. I’d always thought that that was a skin disease, but it appears to actually be a tiny Caribbean island that was part of Bermuda. The general agreement amongst the passengers was that this stop was required due to a shortage of fuel.
Needless to say, we were a bit disconcerted as we approached Exuma, and our mood was not lifted when one of the passengers, looking out the window shouted: “What the *&^% is that?”
“That” turned out to be a plane—looking remarkably similar to ours—lying on the left side of the runway.
The pilot disappeared immediately after landing and we were herded into a dilapidated sandwich shop cum airline terminal, about the size of an Exxon station.
The fellow at the counter (of the snack bar) was the only person there and he got pelted with urgent questions. Apparently, according to him, the plane had crashed.
He didn’t seem too concerned about it, but that was probably because he wasn’t flying to Guantánamo.
When we finally tracked down the pilot he assured us that everything was fine. We had fuel, there were no mechanical problems, and we were not to worry about the crashed plane.
That was caused only because Exuma forgot to put its landing lights out on its airport runway.