Friday, August 27, 2010

Archaeologist Tracks Development of Gitmo Prison with Google Earth

Archaeologist Adrian Myers has utilized Google Earth, ground level photos, and descriptions of the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to track the prison's construction, change in architectural nature, and expansion from 2003 - 2009. In a news article in Science, reported on by Neuron Culture, Meyer's research methods and conclusions are summarized. He determines that the makeshift nature of the early camp reflects a lack of a plan to deal with Global War on Terror detainees, but that as the war dragged on, a larger permanent super-max style prison showed the intent to keep an operating prison there indefinitely (and indeed there were reports in 2005 of plans for keeping detainees in the camp indefinitely). The news article compares this work with the use of Google Earth to track antiquities looting and find new archaeological sites.

Myers' work with Gitmo reminds me of similar tracking of the expansion of the Groom Lake facility in Nevada, the secret military base popularly known as Area 51, but with the operating name "Homey Airport." For years UFO enthusiasts, anti-secrecy protesters, and the curious took photos of the base and drew maps from observation. When a commercial satellite imagery company decided to advertise on the internet about a decade ago, they chose to show Area 51, garnering huge amounts of attention. Likewise, it has been a source of interest for Google Earth users, and such imagery has been used to show the growth of the facility despite rumors it had gone out of business.

But beyond the methods, I do wonder about Myer's interpretations. I haven't read his original research, but the idea that Gitmo reflects a lack of planning strikes me as not including all variables. In particular, while not as visible as Gitmo, the US operated secret prisons throughout the world, including converted former Soviet-client prisons. The location, number, and size of these prisons is still not known to the public (one of the prisons has been located in Lithuania), though early in the Obama administration these prisons were supposedly ordered to be closed. Perhaps the Bush administration underestimated how much prison space it would need, especially once the Iraq war began. Alternatively, there may have been a realization at some point that a facility at Gitmo was probably less damaging or legally questionable than the CIA's constellation of black sites. Perhaps Myers considers this hypothesis in his actual research.

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