In this Nov. 18, 2008 file photo, reviewed by the U.S. Military, a female guard, bottom, and male guard escort a detainee who carries a book from the detainee library trailer to the detention facility
( Brennan Linsley
SACHA PFEIFFER As we just heard, all the information flowing into and out of Guantanamo is tightly controlled by the U.S. military. There's virtually no public access to the prisoners held there, which is why University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Muira McCammon became fascinated with the library at Gitmo. Here was a glimpse into the media diet of a cohort of men who we otherwise know very little about. She wanted to know what books were available and which ones were banned. She gleaned as much information as she could from archives, researchers and other journalists, but realized she could only get answers to many of her questions in person. So in 2017, she secured herself a visit to the naval base and went to Gitmo's Library.
MUIRA McCAMMON The library is within a mobile unit that looked a lot like one of those outdoor mobile units. People sometimes take classes, and it's not even a full building. It's a single mobile unit. It's not the kind of library that people imprisoned at Gitmo are allowed to step foot in.
SACHA PFEIFFER Do you know how many books there are? What kinds of materials? Is it newspapers and music as well?
MUIRA McCAMMON Sure. So the number has evolved over the years. But at the time when I was there in 2017, it was around thirty five thousand books, magazines, games and DVDs. You know, these books are historically coming from three different sources. You have books that are being donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross. You have books and other materials that lawyers have attempted to donate over the years. And then for a while, the Joint Task Force of Guantanamo, which is the body that runs the detention facilities, actually had a budget for books. But I think it was around twenty sixteen when journalists heard from the army captain in charge of the detainee diversion program that the Joint Task Force, the staff no longer had a budget for new book acquisitions.
SACHA PFEIFFER Any idea what the most popular titles are, what books are most requested by the prisoners?
MUIRA McCAMMON One of the books that was very popular for an extended period of time was the Harry Potter series. Lawyers substantiated that claim in a movie called Camp X-ray. Kristen Stewart portrays a guard who bonds with someone who's being held there, and part of their narrative is that the person being in prison there just wants to read the last book in the Harry Potter series.
SACHA PFEIFFER More noteworthy than the books that are most requested is the books that are banned.
MUIRA McCAMMON The Department of Defense had a, what's called a standard operating procedure, so sort of a guide to how the detention facilities were meant to be run. And they included in that document 11 categories of content that service members were instructed to not circulate, and these included things that were deemed to be anti-Semitic, you know, books that are about anti-American topics. And that's not my phrasing that's coming from the standard operating procedures. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the African-American slave by Frederick Douglass, were unavailable. And, you know, I think that it's worth noting that there were prisoner of war libraries that were made available to German prisoners of war who were held during World War Two in the United States. There was also an effort to create and subsequently censor content that was in Japanese-American internment camps in the United States. So this history of censorship and this attempt to control the information that people have access to is part of a very long legacy of the U.S. military.
SACHA PFEIFFER There is almost a genre now of memoirs by former Guantanamo prisoners. I wonder if you know whether these books are allowed in the library at Guantanamo.
MUIRA McCAMMON I think it's a good time to promote one of the new books that's out by Mansur al-Dayfi, one of his memoirs has recently been published. And then, of course, there's Mohamedou Ould Salahi's book, which was recently made into the film The Mauritanian. As for whether this content is available in the Detainee Library, I think at the moment it isn't. I think there's been a pretty steady policy of not allowing content by people who've been detained at GITMO in the actual library, and this would be in keeping with the policies that censor what is identified as anti-American content.
SACHA PFEIFFER I've read a lot of what you've written about the library and your research into the library, and in the end, I couldn't tell if you felt like you learned a larger truth or if you felt like it offered some insight.
MUIRA McCAMMON I thought, Sacha, that, you know, if I could just get my hands on a list of all the books that had been made available to people held at Guantanamo that I could walk away with some great truth or great understanding about. What their condition was or what their beliefs were. And my profound takeaway, if you will, is that in focusing on the library, you know, all of this time that I spent trying to get lists of the types of media that were available, I didn't spend that time talking to people who had been held at Guantanamo. And I think that it is very easy to focus on a structure, and it is much harder to truly reckon with the hundreds upon hundreds of people that the U.S. government has held, harmed, traumatized and ultimately silenced.
SACHA PFEIFFER Well, but I think that that aspect of Guantanamo gets covered quite extensively, even if some people find the library an interesting footnote to it.
MUIRA McCAMMON I think that there are a lot of newsrooms that are still directing their attention very aggressively towards what is happening at Guantanamo, and that's important. But the problem is in the way that newsrooms are constructed. It's national security reporters who are sent to Guantanamo to cover Guantanamo and see immigration reporters who are sent to ICE detention facilities to try to understand what is happening within them. But both of these types of beats are trying to ask some of the same questions. And what I would like to see is more of a common thread being drawn between some of these spaces because it is often presented that Guantanamo is this very special, very exceptional, very unreachable detention facility. And while it is all of those things, there are other structures that the U.S. government maintains that are similar to Guantanamo.
SACHA PFEIFFER I'm trying to decide if I agree with you, because I do think there are some things about Guantanamo you can't compare to anything else. I mean, we chose to put it in another country. We chose to have none of the laws of this country apply there. So I do think it's unique and distinct in many ways.
MUIRA McCAMMON Sure. But what I'm saying is that I think that the journalists who have been covering the ICE detention facilities, for example, have encountered a similar system of informational control. And some of these same debates of what can be really understood by going inside a detention facility. What type of information can you get from the government? Of course, these are very different types of detention facilities, but they do have some similarities in their structure.
SACHA PFEIFFER Muira McCammon is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks for talking with us.
MUIRA McCAMMON Thank you so much for having me, Sacha.
SACHA PFEIFFER Coming up, ethical breaches are par for the course in the gold rush era of documentary filmmaking. This is On the Media.