Mentioning Guantanamo Bay incites different reactions in different people, but almost everyone has a passionate take on the issue. One of President Obama’s first actions when he took office was to sign a bill to close Guantanamo within a year, so this couldn’t have been a better time for National Geographic’s Explorer: Inside Guantanamo. I went to the world premiere screening of the film and panel discussion this past Tuesday, which was very exciting and informative– it’s events like this that make me glad to be in DC.
The event started with a huge reception with lots of food, drink, and mingling. According to one of the people I talked to, that kind of thing is very unusual for National Geographic’s screenings, but they must have pulled out all the stops for high-level guests from Congress, the administration, the military, and even Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace, who moderated the panel.
I’m probably not the most impartial reviewer of a film like this, since I am a big fan of National Geographic in general, but I was completely absorbed by the hour or so of the documentary they showed us. It included interviews with the guards, former detainees (whose guilt or innocence I was never quite sure of), and extensive filming inside the prison. Most of the film was frightening and sobering, but there were moments of lightness, too: during a morning report, an officer mutters “holy s&%t” under his breath when reading off that a detainee had consumed eight water bottles in an hour; and a detainee in a cell calls out for the camera that the kind treatment we’re seeing wasn’t present an hour ago, and “…if you believe this propaganda, I’m Santa.”
The real draw for me, though, was the panel after the film. It was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, and included:
- U.S. Army Master Sargeant William “Jones” (he was using a pseudonym, like all the guards and officers in the film), who is the officer-in-charge of Guantanamo’s maximum security facility
- U.S. Army Colonel Donald Woolfolk (Ret.) who was responsible for detainee interrogations in 2002-03
- Secretary Charles “Cully” Stimson, who was instrumental in getting the National Geographic’s crew down to Guantanamo in an effort to reform the facility’s reputation
- Alberto Mora, leader of the campaign inside the Bush administration to prevent military and civilian leaders from sanctioning abusive interrogation techniques
- Sarah Havens, a lawyer featured in the film who represents a number of Yemeni detainees who have yet to be charged of a crime
- and Bonni Cohen, producer and co-director of Explorer: Inside Guantanamo.
Chris Wallace was genial as always, but he got right to the point with his first question: “Was there torture in Guantanamo?” Col. Woolfolk came right out and said that there was no torture under his tenure. He said, “I’m proud to say…we treated the detainees humanely,” but when Wallace put the question to Alberto Mora, he was not quite as sure of himself nor as direct. He said that there were indications of torture in the transcripts, practices that “opened the door to torture,” but what does that all mean? I think both Chris Wallace and I were looking for a little bit more of a concrete answer to the biggest question hanging over the facility.
The winner for the lamest answer to a question went to Col. Woolfolk a little bit later on in the program, when Wallace asked why we saw two such different realities between the military’s portrayal of Guantanamo and the media’s. Woolfolk waxed poetic for about ten minutes, starting with the history of Guantanamo: how it was originally designed to be temporary, Camp X-Ray (affectionately known as the “dog kennels”) was tough on the guards, too, and perhaps the young, untrained guards reacted when feces and urine were thrown on them. He also mentioned that the prisoners received a complete physical when they arrived, and that maybe they thought they were going to be tortured when they saw the dentist’s chair. Seriously, I think he would have kept talking all night if Chris Wallace hadn’t stopped him, but all this filibuster seemed to do was offer weak excuses.
My favorite was young lawyer Sarah Havens, who was really eloquent and composed, even when describing her reactions to certain things as “infuriated.” After Stimson admitted that there were people being held unjustly at Guantanamo because it was so difficult to tell the difference between civilians and terrorists at the point of capture, Havens jumped in and pointed out that Bush made decisions to release prisoners based more on where they were from, not whether they’re guilty or innocent. Most released prisoners are Saudis, Afghans, or Pakistanis– only 10% of Yemeni prisoners have been released, compared to 90% of others.
Nat Geo was filming the panel and mentioned that it would be up on their website, but I wasn’t able to find it yet.* You can check back for that and catch Explorer: Inside Guantanamo on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, April 5 at 9:00pm.
*Update: here’s the link to the video of the panel.