20 Years Later, the Story Behind the Guantánamo Photo That Won’t Go Away

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On Jan. 11, 2002, a sailor photographed 20 men successful orangish uniforms and connected their knees, capturing 1 of the astir damning post-9/11 images of U.S. detention policy.

An representation  taken by the subject   connected  Jan. 11, 2002, shows the archetypal  20 prisoners astatine  Guantánamo Bay soon   aft  their arrival.
Credit...Petty Officer First Class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy

Carol Rosenberg

Jan. 10, 2022Updated 11:29 p.m. ET

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — Four months to the time aft the Sept. 11 attacks, a lensman hoisted a camera supra shiny caller razor ligament and took a representation of 20 prisoners connected their knees successful orangish uniforms, manacled, masked and heads bowed.

The representation ignited a statement implicit what the United States was doing astatine its offshore prison, which continues operating to this day. It besides became 1 of the astir enduring, damning photos of U.S. detention argumentation successful the 21st century.

But mislaid successful clip and corporate representation to galore is that the representation was not immoderate leaked representation of torture that the nationalist was not meant to see. It was taken by a U.S. Navy photographer, intentionally released by the Defense Department.

“I was doing precisely what I was assigned to do,” said the photographer, Shane T. McCoy. “It was my occupation to papers it. I perfectly had to photograph it. And I had to nonstop it up.”

The day was Jan. 11, 2002. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, section allies had scooped up hundreds of suspected overseas fighters and Qaeda members and delivered them to U.S. forces. The C.I.A. had yet to found its concealed situation network. The detainee maltreatment ungraded astatine Abu Ghraib situation successful Iraq was years away.

And an Air Force cargo level had delivered the archetypal prisoners to the basal successful southeast Cuba — the “least worst place” for the mission, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. Mr. McCoy, a petty serviceman astatine the time, drew the duty of photographing opening time astatine Camp X-Ray for the elite Combat Camera unit.

In time, the United States would hold astir 780 prisoners astatine the distant outpost. In a substance of months, aft the archetypal 300 prisoners were brought there, the Pentagon had enactment up crude rows of cells welded from shipping containers. Later, the subject built air-conditioned prisons, wherever the last 39 detainees are held today.

To the chagrin of a succession of subject commanders, the representation of those archetypal 20 men connected their knees would not spell away.

Newspapers and magazines routinely republish it successful articles astir the prison, the basal and the United States’ warfare connected terrorism. Protesters don orangish and re-enact it. Islamic State fighters usurped it and enactment hostages successful agleam orangish clothing, past executed them.

It has go truthful pervasive, truthful emblematic of U.S. detention argumentation that immoderate bash not recognize that it was taken astatine Guantánamo Bay, the situation that the George W. Bush medication made its showcase detention operation.

In a recent occurrence of “60 Minutes” astir a erstwhile National Security Agency contractor who leaked a authorities document, the Guantánamo photograph that was released by the U.S. subject filled the surface to exemplify the thought that the authorities has utilized classification “to conceal wrongdoing — torture successful the warfare connected panic for example.”

How you spot that photograph depends connected “your politics, your consciousness of Guantánamo and what went connected determination — connected your capableness for empathy, whether oregon not anybody successful your household has ever been successful prison,” said Anne Wilkes Tucker, the erstwhile curator of photography astatine Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

“That representation volition beryllium interpreted and reinterpreted for astir apt ever,” she said. “It’s truthful rich, and tin solicit 180-degree interpretations. From ‘We got them’ to ‘More than fractional are astir apt innocent.’”

Hours earlier the archetypal 20 men arrived, the Marine liable for mounting up Camp X-Ray, Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, described them arsenic “the worst of the worst” of the detainees held successful Afghanistan. It would yet beryllium wide that was not true.


Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Just 2 are held today. Of those archetypal 20, 8 were released by the clip Mr. Bush near office. None were ever charged successful the Sept. 11 attacks.

In Senate grounds past month, Mr. Lehnert, who retired arsenic a large general, called the endeavor helium had acceptable up misguided, astatine likelihood with U.S. values. He urged that it beryllium closed.

Mr. McCoy, 47 and present a lensman for the U.S. Marshals Service, recalled that time arsenic a agelong one. He had divided the duties with different Navy photographer, and with a coin flip ended up documenting the men awaiting registration successful a makeshift, open-air holding compound.

He chose astir 100 images, wrote captions and sent them to Washington.

At the Pentagon astir a week later, quality organizations were clamoring for transparency astatine the nascent detention cognition successful Cuba. Grainy, night-vision quality footage had been broadcast from Afghanistan showing U.S. soldiers starring prisoners successful rags, with bags connected their head.

“The situation was that the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit holding detainees up to nationalist ridicule oregon humiliation,” Victoria Clarke, Mr. Rumsfeld’s spokeswoman, wrote successful her 2006 memoir, “Lipstick connected a Pig.” To “allay immoderate of our critics,” she obtained support and released five photos.

People successful the Pentagon saw a portrayal of safely held, anonymous prisoners that met Geneva Conventions obligations to support prisoners against “public curiosity.”

Out successful the world, the imagery struck immoderate radical arsenic cruel. They saw degradation, sensory deprivation and subjugation.

“Did I ever misread what was successful those photos,” Ms. Clarke wrote. “Instead of showing the attraction and interest with which we treated the detainees, the photos served arsenic high-octane substance for our critics and doubters.”

Some successful Europe were peculiarly offended. The dragnet successful Afghanistan and Pakistan had rounded up English-speaking Muslims, immoderate of them from Western Europe, and they were being sent to Guantánamo Bay.

“Shaved and Confused,” said a header accompanying the photograph successful Glasgow’s Sunday Herald. “Even Our Enemies Have Human Rights,” declared London’s Sunday Independent. “Guantánamo Scandal,” said the rubric of a blurb on the beforehand leafage of Le Monde. The Mirror tabloid questioned the confederation betwixt Prime Minister Tony Blair and Mr. Bush. “What are you doing successful our name, Mr. Blair?” said a tabloid screen featuring a first-day photo.

“I deliberation it’s a deficiency of ocular literacy connected the portion of, successful this case, the military,” said Fred Ritchin, a erstwhile prof of photography and imaging astatine New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography.

“The effort here, from what I understand, seems to person been to effort to amusement bully guys rounding up those who mightiness person been considered the atrocious guys, portion reasoning that they were doing it successful a humane way,” helium said. “Other radical don’t spot it that way.”

Both Mr. McCoy and Ms. Clarke said the Pentagon failed by not providing fuller explanations of what was happening successful the photo.

“It was this tiny small portion of what happened down there, without seeing the full pie,” Mr. McCoy said, similar “taking a fewer words retired of context” and creating an alternate narrative.

The photograph showed a infinitesimal erstwhile the prisoners were cross-legged portion connected their knees “so they can’t get up rapidly and tally away,” said Mr. McCoy, who has seen instrumentality enforcement officers enactment prisoners connected the crushed the aforesaid way.

Hats and mittens were to support against the acold successful the cavernous cargo level that brought them from wintry Afghanistan. Blackout goggles and receptor coverings were to forestall the presumed force from communicating and possibly plotting attacks. Turquoise masks were to shield against the imaginable dispersed of tuberculosis.

Without capable explanation, Mr. McCoy said, “you conscionable spot the photograph that outraged people.”

“I’m ever of the sentiment that radical should beryllium capable to spot astir of what the authorities is doing,” helium said. “The information that I person a small portion of history, I don’t caput that. I don’t caput that I was the 1 wrong the campy documenting it. If things got changed for the better, past that’s wonderful. I ne'er witnessed immoderate mistreatment.”

Mr. Rumsfeld tried to hole the damage by saying that the detainees were successful transit and not kept that way. “I deliberation that a batch of radical saw that and said, ‘My goodness, they’re being forced to kneel,’ which is not true,” helium said.


Credit...Peter Muhly/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He declared it “probably unfortunate” that the images were released. The Pentagon stopped giving them out. By then, large quality agencies had distributed them.

Petty Officer McCoy learned of the absorption to his photos and called his mother. “I told her that I caused an planetary incident. She said, ‘I’m truthful arrogant of you.’ She knew I was conscionable doing my job.”

When Mr. Rumsfeld came to Guantánamo later that month, the lensman pulled the brag speech and apologized. The defence caput dismissed the gesture, helium said, remarking that the sailor was performing his duties.

Mr. McCoy near the subject successful 2009 with a 100 percent disablement rating. After his duty astatine Guantánamo, helium went connected a bid of far-flung assignments, including successful Iraq, wearing the dense assemblage armor of the clip and carrying dense gear. Mr. McCoy has 5 herniated disks successful his back, atrocious knees, atrocious ankles and associated pain.

He inactive hoists a camera and sometimes dons a bulletproof vest successful his existent job. But the instrumentality is lighter. On the road, helium stays successful hotels, not astatine guardant operating bases. His days of hurling himself disconnected a hovering chopper with packs connected his beforehand and backmost and heaving a 70-pound cogwheel container are over. He drives a car to assignments.

He said helium has taken acold amended photographs, galore of them ne'er released.

A favourite from that time showed a pistillate soldier, the kneeling prisoners blurry successful the background. Mr. McCoy said, arsenic helium perceived it, immoderate of the men successful custody “didn’t person a full batch of respect for women working.”

But nary person been reprinted and repurposed similar that first-day representation of the archetypal prisoners astatine Guantánamo Bay.


Credit...Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy, via Getty Images

This summer, portion connected abrogation with his woman and daughters, they spotted it successful a show successful a defunct penitentiary successful Philadelphia that erstwhile held Al Capone. “It had my sanction connected it,” Mr. McCoy said. “I’m nary longer amazed seeing it anywhere.”

Never did Mr. McCoy ideate that “20 years aboriginal I would inactive spot those photos being used.” On that day, successful that place, “I was reasoning that I had an opportunity, being the lone lensman successful the camp.” History was happening and helium had the exclusive, if lone for the archives of the Department of Defense.

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