Loosening Guantánamo's Grip: The Story of Matthew Diaz

At the end of his six-month tour at the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Matthew Diaz made a decision that would change his life—and possibly that of hundreds of prisoners held in the Pentagon's legal vacuum. In return, Diaz was fired, jailed, and had his legal license suspended. Since blowing the whistle on the illegal detainment of so-called "enemy combatants," Diaz's life has been a daily struggle.

October 27, 2008

The Bronx Defenders, a legal advocacy organization, is located just blocks away from the old Yankee Stadium in a low building with a courtyard out front. On a recent morning, Matthew Diaz sat at one of the courtyard’s umbrella-shaded picnic tables sipping coffee from a paper cup.

Matthew Diaz served a six-month tour of duty at the Guantánamo military detention facility.

Diaz, 41 and a former judge advocate in the U.S. Navy, began working at the Defenders just two months earlier. His job is to assist the organization’s attorneys by conducting screening interviews with potential clients, an entry-level job for which, despite the extent of his legal experience, he is supremely grateful. “I’m starting from the ground up again,” he told me recently, with a tired, but genuine smile.

It was January 2, 2005, in the final days of his six-month tour at Guantánamo, when Lieutenant Commander Diaz, then the deputy director of the detention center’s legal office, printed out a 39-page document containing the names, aliases, serial numbers, and other information for the 551 detainees that were currently being held at Guantánamo Bay. He folded the papers in half and slipped them inside a Valentine’s Day card with a cheery cartoon dog on its cover. He then mailed the document to Barbara Olshansky, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based civil liberties organization.

When Olshansky received the card in the mail, she thought it might be a practical joke. “I have a lot of wise-ass friends,” she has said. It never occurred to her that someone inside the detention camp headquarters might be trying to help them. She agonized for weeks over what to do. At the time, CCR was suing the government over a range of sensitive issues—namely, Guantánamo, immigrant rights, the Patriot Act—and she consulted the federal court hearing her suit about what to do with the document. The court instructed—much to Olshansky’s surprise—her to hand over the documents to the Justice Department. Soon after, the FBI began its investigation over who had released the list. They seemingly had little trouble narrowing down the list of suspects.

As the second in command of Guantánamo's legal office, it was Diaz’s responsibility to document and investigate all accounts of abuse, from both detainees and attorneys. His complicity grated on him. “It had that affect on me that this was something I just couldn’t turn away from.” In December, after being copied on a letter from Olshansky requesting the names of all the detainees, he decided to take action. “She laid out the history of trying to get information, and its like, I lived that for the past six months. And she’s right. We are doing wrong.”

It was a decision that cost him his position in the Navy, his pension—after more than twenty years of service—the suspension of his legal license, and six-months of confinement at the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The consequences cast an often-debilitating shadow over each day of his civilian life.

Artist's interpretation of the valentine making its court appearance.

After being released from the brig about a year ago, in late 2007, Diaz moved to Florida, where his daughter and ex-wife live. Unable to practice law, he looked for work as a paralegal. “I didn’t have the bitterness initially. I was just glad to be out, glad to try to get back on my feet.” Diaz speaks with a faint Texan accent; his voice is low and tranquil, barely raising in pitch when he’s angry. He was seventeen when he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the military. “The only life I knew.”

Paralegal work was harder to come by than he expected. He was called for just one interview, at a firm in Tampa. During the interview, “The Gitmo background came up… Eyebrows were raised when I tried to explain what the whole background of it was about.” He left the interview and never heard back from them. With no income, a teenage daughter to support, and car payments to make, he began substitute teaching, primarily at an elementary school for students with special needs. He discovered that he enjoyed working with children. “I thought teaching was going to be my new career,” he said and scoffed. But substitute teaching wasn’t covering his bills.

“I needed to find some place where I didn’t need to rely on my car, that had a good public transportation system, and a little bit more liberal way of thinking and wouldn’t judge me too harshly for what I did.” The New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) seemed like the perfect option. NYCTF recruits uncertified individuals with little teaching background to work in the city’s understaffed public schools while studying for their masters in education; it’s a highly selective program that aims to address the city’s teacher shortage with a core of new teachers from diverse professional backgrounds.

Diaz fully disclosed everything about his case on his application, and was surprised and delighted when he was called up for an interview, and soon after, offered a spot in the program as special education elementary school fellow. He drove up to New York in June 2007 for the intensive seven-week training session, which included two graduate-level courses at Hunter College and assistant teaching in an elementary school classroom. He earned an A and A+ in his classes and received positive feedback from his supervising teacher. He returned home to Florida at the end of August to relax and spend some time with his daughter before the school year began.

He woke up on Friday, August 22 and began making plans for his final weekend at home. He was due to head back to New York that Monday. He checked his email and found a message in his inbox with the subject line: “NYCTF Status Update.” He had failed his background check. “You are no longer eligible to remain a NYC Teaching Fellow, which means that you cannot be certified to begin teaching,” the email read. “We must remove you from the Teaching Fellows program effective immediately. Please do not report to any Teaching Fellows- or Department of Education-related activities or events.”

He returned to New York as planned on Monday to meet with the investigator at the New York City Department of Education. There had to be “some wiggle room,” as Diaz put it. “He told me that my federal and state background was clean,” Diaz said. “It was the Gitmo thing.” His case was somewhere along the military court appellate process, and it seems, had yet to appear on his federal record. He was turned away from the NYCTF on the basis of the information disclosed on his application form.

The first group of detainees at Guantánamo in January 2002 at the then-newly opened "Camp X-Ray." (By Shane T. McCoy/US Navy)

“It makes me cynical, I guess, that we can’t have that second chance. Government keeping me down and preventing me from trying to recover from the blow I took after the conviction, the confinement, and the loss of income. Trying to get back on my feet and it was government keeping me down. And the reason I was being kept down was because of the political undertones. I have no criminal record.”

It was David Tarrell, a defense attorney in Nebraska, who helped Diaz find his current job at the Bronx Defenders. In October 2007, Tarrell read a profile of Diaz in the New York Times Magazine—“Naming Names at Gitmo”—and was struck by his story. “When I first read about Matt I thought of all the people in the Bush administration that have broken the law but had soft landings, sometimes even making more money after conviction than they'd made before they left government.” Tarrell hunted down his contact information and offered his help should Diaz ever find himself out of work. When Diaz learned that he was no longer eligible to teach, he emailed Tarrell who put him in touch with the Bronx Defenders. Diaz loves his job. The Defenders serves a largely black and Hispanic community, which he says, reminds him of his hometown of Gary, Indiana.

Diaz is in process of appealing his conviction. He is waiting to hear if he and his defense council will be granted oral argument and invited to appear in court—though it seems unlikely. This time around he and his attorneys seek to present circumstantial evidence that was prohibited during his first trial, which included any information regarding the conditions or legality at the detention center in Guantánamo. In May of 2006, just 16 months after Diaz sent his Valentine’s Day card, the Pentagon released the names of its Guantánamo detainees to the Associated Press, under a Freedom of Information Act petition. Diaz was barred from making this point as part of his defense. “Given that I was afforded little due process, not much more than those detainees at Guantánamo are receiving, I really don’t have any reason to be optimistic, but I have to try.”

Jessica Weisberg is a NACLA Research Associate.

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