In October 2019, an op-ed in a student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte made an allegation that rippled across campus: it claimed that the university’s administration had quietly appointed a war criminal as the new head of campus safety and security. The man, retired army colonel John Bogdan, had spent two years running the notorious detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.
The student who wrote the op-ed didn’t have to look far to find traces of Bogdan’s record. The colonel’s LinkedIn profile noted that, between 2012 and 2014, Bogdan had been “responsible for the safe and legal custody of 166 opposing force detainees.” Those detainees were young and middle-aged Muslim men who had been extrajudicially imprisoned during the so-called War on Terror. Further internet searches revealed that while Bogdan was warden of Guantánamo Bay, he had implemented a regime of intrusive genital searches, had detainees on hunger strike intravenously force fed, and had allowed guards to use rubber bullets on hunger-striking detainees. One lawyer for detainees has written that Bogdan’s Guantánamo was characterized by “displays of power for power’s sake.” Although Bogdan’s actions likely do not constitute war crimes under international law, the UNC Charlotte Chapter of the American Association of University Professors later argued that those actions “clearly violate human decency and the spirit of the Third Geneva Convention and other protocols for the treatment of prisoners.”
Almost immediately, the op-ed set off a campaign to have Bogdan fired. A group of several dozen students, consisting primarily of campus Democrats and Young Democratic Socialists of America members, began searching for more evidence of what Bogdan had done at Guantánamo. They formed a group chat on GroupMe to strategize and share articles about Bogdan’s past, and a Twitter feed to publicize their discoveries and rally support. They called themselves the Coalition to Remove John Bogdan.
Members of the coalition soon found themselves clashing with the university’s administration over Bogdan’s role on campus, and struggling to convince their Zoomer-generation peers—most of whom were born after 9/11 and were children during the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars—that the man who ran the Guantánamo detention center shouldn’t be the head of campus security. At the same time, the coalition members were trying to educate themselves about what had transpired in the detention facilities. In the decade after 9/11, Guantánamo was perhaps the most potent symbol of the abuses and excesses of the US national security state, but its place in the public imagination had been receding since Barack Obama’s second term in office. “I didn’t really know anything about it,” one coalition member recently told me over Zoom.
The coalition members’ understanding of the base was almost entirely mediated by digital records, “Guantánamo” Google searches, Wikipedia skims, and tidbits teachers had told them along the way. But the version of Guantánamo that public schools teach and that tends to live online is very narrowly defined: a hundred-year-old naval base on forty-five square miles of US-controlled land and sea at the southeastern tip of Cuba. Though the identities and experiences of the people detained at Guantánamo have now been reported, catalogued, and even cinematized, a political and technological veil has been cast over the past and future of most former guards. The result is a Guantánamo that is always far away: the people there are never coming here, to America.
That myth has made formulating the right questions about truth, justice, and the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay incredibly hard to do. Bogdan’s presence at UNC Charlotte raised exactly those questions. He was the rare exception of someone who had emerged from behind the veil.
A Pinpoint on Google Maps
Although Bogdan had listed his Guantánamo experience on his LinkedIn profile, knowledge about most of the guards that return from Guantánamo is extraordinarily hard to come by. This is largely the result of decisions made by the Pentagon, which worked for years to ensure that most guards’ identities, decisions, and actions would not be documented in public archives.
The Guantánamo that emerges online tends to be a pinpoint on Google Maps, a small strip of land through which all kinds of people—private contractors, intelligence agents, soldiers, sailors, policymakers, lawyers, journalists—pass through, disappearing in discourse once they leave the base. Google Images almost inevitably turns one’s attention to the physical detention camp, too. Searches produce a checkerboard of orange jumpsuits, snapshots of current detainees, splatters of camouflage. Over the past decade, the first page of results has evolved to include photographs of protesters in the mainland US, but even those images point back to the camp: many protesters have decided that the best way to remind civilians of Gitmo’s continued existence is to dress up like detainees. In the digital archives of major US newspaper outlets, there is a parallel pattern. Almost all the photographs accompanying stories about the detention facilities show a similar montage: hurricane fencing and barbed wire; American flags and the backs of military personnel; the small, beige-colored trailers containing men deemed too dangerous for US soil.
Political discourse about Guantánamo has also centered on the prison and its detainees. If the Zoomers at UNC Charlotte had looked for Guantánamo on C-SPAN.org, they would have scrolled through decades of videos of congressional representatives, national security lawyers, lieutenants, and journalists regurgitating the same five or six questions. When will Guantánamo close? Where will the detainees go? What might happen to the detention facilities if they are ever emptied of people? What is it like to see Guantánamo with your own eyes? What horrors might befall America if detainees were to be housed and tried in US federal criminal courts instead of military commissions?
Wikipedia articles about Guantánamo echo these frames, and have become repositories of contested knowledge about the detained. Footnotes include Supreme Court cases about habeas corpus petitions, links to lengthy Pentagon reports on the detention facilities, memos written by ACLU lawyers arguing for the immediate closure of the prison, and a rich archive of investigative news articles that try to detail human rights abuses at the prison. In much of this writing, the passive voice lurks in the prose, quietly obfuscating precisely who is ordering that detainees be force-fed, who is implementing groin searches, who is doing the detaining.
Archivists, activists, and journalists have pushed against this erasure, and initiatives such as the Guantánamo Public Memory Project have endeavored to trace the lineage of the place. Reporters from some countries whose citizens have been imprisoned at Guantánamo have tried to document who did what, when, and why, and individuals released from the detention facilities have written about their experiences. Some of the most rigorous coverage of the prison is unsurprisingly written in Arabic. But language barriers have made this knowledge relatively inaccessible to English-speaking monolinguals living in the United States.
Some guards have chosen to identify themselves on Twitter and other social media platforms. One even started a gym in Philly. But most keep quiet. There is no public list, no Excel spreadsheet of former guards. Instead, there is a persistent informational void about who the individual guards were, who they harmed, what ideologies motivated them, and where they went when they left the camp. Contrary to what Google Maps might show you, Guantánamo runs on the dreams and sweat and blood and logics of people like John Bogdan—former guards and wardens who are now scattered across the United States.
Once wardens and guards leave Guantánamo, they tend to go quietly into the night of civilian life. The uproar over Bogdan’s appointment at UNC Charlotte was an anomaly. Members of the Coalition to Remove John Bogdan met in the GroupMe chat and in the library late at night to imagine a campus without him. They amplified their cause by tweeting and chalking the streets. In their written statements, coalition members drew heavily on reports written by Amnesty International and other organizations that had made a concerted effort to track and trace the wrongs that Bogdan’s Guantánamo had wrought. There was plenty of documentation of what was done to detainees. Reports from Human Rights Watch noted that a federal district judge had ordered Bogdan to explain a standing order that called for the use of restraint chairs during the force-feeding of detainees. But there was little information about who apart from Bogdan had been involved in doing it.
It is fair to say that the administrators of UNC Charlotte did not imagine their campus would become the site of a battle over the legacy, meaning, and future of detention facilities that are over a thousand miles away. After the coalition began drawing attention to Bogdan’s alleged crimes, the university’s chancellor issued what he called a “fact set” to defend Bogdan’s reputation and employment history. But the document also went many steps further, legitimizing Guantánamo as just one of the US military’s hundreds of bases.
Bogdan fought back as well. In an interview with a local reporter, he pushed the thesis that “the mission here is not far off from the military.” He declared, “The mission of the Army is to fight and win the nation’s wars. And you do that by developing a team, and teaching and growing and building the future of the nation. That’s exactly what universities do, right?” Around the same time, university administrators instructed the social media team associated with the admissions department to block the coalition on Twitter, so that prospective students were less likely to come across their arguments against the colonel.
Ultimately, the coalition couldn’t translate their understanding of Guantánamo into a campaign that resonated with most of their fellow students. In part, the Zoomers had faced the challenge of teaching themselves and their peers what the military prison was and why it mattered. More importantly, perhaps, in setting out to learn about Guantánamo, they were never going to encounter examples of other struggles like theirs. In fact, there has only been one analogous case relating directly to Gitmo: since 2009, Berkeley law students have repeatedly called for the dismissal of professor John Yoo, who gained the nickname “architect of torture” for his role in justifying harsh CIA interrogation techniques deployed at Guantánamo. The students’ Google searching had led them back in time, to a period during their childhoods when Bogdan was running Guantánamo, but it brought them no closer to a blueprint for how to hold people like Bogdan accountable in the present.
If Guantánamo is more than a physical detention camp, if it is also a network of people and ideologies that have successfully implemented the continuous extrajudicial detention of individuals, then how can researchers, reporters, and future generations trace its contours online, and formulate questions about what justice with regard to Guantánamo might look like?
In 2015, as a master’s student in comparative literature, I emailed the Joint Task Force Guantánamo, requesting to see the prison’s library. I was informed that only reporters could go, so I began a foray into freelance journalism. To go would be to see, and to see would be to understand, I told myself. Among other things, I set out to learn how the arrival of T-Mobile cell service had changed life on the naval base. I hoped I could convince US civilians that Guantánamo was not so far away—what the Bush administration had described as “the legal equivalent of outer space” was, in fact, connected by multiple fiber optic cables to the state of Florida.
As I interviewed guards stationed at the base, I discovered many of them were millennials like me. They were mostly twenty-somethings, some actually younger, many of whom scuba-dived on the weekends, acting as if warehousing Muslim men was part of their patriotic duty. At the same time, I could not shake the feeling that everything I saw in the detention facilities, where I was surveilled and accompanied by a handler most of the time, was a curated performance. To understand Gitmo, I realized, I would need to find a different way backstage.
For the past five years, I have relied on different open-source intelligence methods to explore the porousness of Gitmo and to follow the people who move through it. I spent one year watching the Joint Task Force scrub its own official Twitter feed of hundreds of tweets. (They subsequently deactivated the account, and I took over the handle.) I sat quietly for years with the knowledge that geolocation-based smartphone apps were a window into a military culture that most civilians will never see, and nodded my head when people told me that fitness trackers like Strava could reveal someone’s location on a military base. I knew that Strava was just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t need to go to Gitmo to speak with personnel there; I could just turn on my phone.
I considered different platforms—Facebook, YouTube, Reddit—where current and former guards might hover. All seemed too public—except Tinder. And so, in the summer of 2017, I plugged in a little personal information about myself on the app, geolocated to Guantánamo, and began to chat with men who were stationed there. I ended up swiping right on private contractors, members of the Military Police, sailors who were just passing through the port. Meanwhile, I sat in my small apartment in Massachusetts trying to understand what precisely I was trying to understand about the detention facilities.
What I began to see through Tinder is that Americans would pass through the base and eventually return stateside. My new digital strategies were leading me to reckon with the fact that guards themselves were constantly returning after their rotations to communities throughout the United States, many slipping back into civilian life. Guards came, guards went, rinse, repeat. Through swiping, I could ask these people what they saw on the ground, and I could do what I had largely been unable to do at Guantánamo—learn their names, gain records of their faces, outline their moral codes, inquire what the detention facilities represented to them.
The responses I gathered included disavowals and defenses of the national security state—a diversity of perspectives absent in much of the public record. At the same time, I was trying to document the identities of former guards, though at a certain point I recognized that this alone wouldn’t cause me to reckon with the vastness of the US national security state represented by Guantánamo Bay. As the scholar A. Naomi Paik argues in her book Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II, Gitmo is part of a longstanding and ongoing US project to create physical and legal black sites. A few truths told on Tinder couldn’t make for a global reconciliation.
It took the UNC Charlotte students’ campaign, which I first heard about in late 2019, for me to reckon with my own lack of imagination. I had been so intent on using social media to map the identities, ideologies, and movements of former guards that I hadn’t considered what might transpire if their identities were to be widely known. The Zoomers had first learned about Bogdan’s history through LinkedIn—and then they led a concerted effort to fire him.
But when I speak to members of the Coalition to Remove John Bogdan and other former UNC Charlotte students, I always find myself circling back to the same question. After unearthing this knowledge about Bogdan, if they didn’t think he belonged on their campus, where did he belong?
One UNC Charlotte alumna, who now works in the national security sector, responded, “I think what shocked me was the ease with which someone that had such a high-profile position like that was able to come back and seamlessly reenter society, and that was it. I guess I just assumed they’d go to like RAND or Deloitte or somewhere like that.” Another Coalition member, now an alumnus, said the question of where Bogdan should be removed to had been stumping him from the start. “My initial reaction was to say that John Bogdan is not fit for any sort of civilian job,” he told me. “But then, I don’t necessarily want people like John Bogdan in our police or military either.”
It struck me that what the students lacked was a model for justice that goes beyond any single warden or guard. This was partly a consequence of the algorithmically curated information they encountered online, but it is also the result of a widespread refusal by American society as a whole to confront this issue. As the students leave their campus and scatter across the United States, like former guards returning from their rotations, they’ll have to decide if they, too, want to leave Gitmo behind.