Archeology grad student pulls the cover off Gitmo growth


A Stanford archeology PhD student named Adrian Myers has harnessed Google Earth to reveal something the US government has tried to keep under wraps: the growth of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. He did so drawing on readily available data, and in a way that violated no laws. Some very clever sleuthing — and a nice bit of quick-cycle archeology. Science has the (paywalled) story from ace archeology writer  Heather Pringle.

For human-rights advocates, Gitmo is terra incognita, a place of many unknowns, and its clandestine nature and location on foreign soil have helped fuel suspicions about the treatment of detainees there. In a new study published in World Archaeology this week, archaeology Ph.D. student Adrian Myers of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, strips away part of the secrecy. By analyzing a series of satellite images easily accessible on Google Earth, Myers has drawn the first independent map of Gitmo and charted its explosive growth over the past 7 years. “He has taken the archaeological eye and turned it on Google Earth images of a heavily clouded political prison,” says cultural anthropologist David Price of St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. “And this is telling us something about what’s going on at Gitmo.”

Beautiful stuff — and this techno-triumph by an archeology student speaks nicely of the eclectic nature of that discipline.


Myers began studying Google Earth images of Guantánamo Bay in April 2009 while gathering data for his dissertation on the archaeology of internment camps. At first, he wondered whether he would be able to see the prison, given that Google Earth gets images from private companies that are subject to laws restricting the release of images of military installations and other sensitive places. Myers expected Gitmo to be blurred out. But it wasn’t. “When I navigated there,” he says, “I remember saying, ‘Holy crap, you can see it.’”

Myers downloaded Google Earth’s high-resolution images of Gitmo taken on three dates between April 2003 and February 2008. He then loaded them into a geographical information system and identified features such as roads, guard towers, and barbed wire fences. To better interpret what he was seeing, he compared the satellite images with official ground photos of the prison and with plans he found in a leaked government report. “That was key,” says Susan Wolfinbarger, a remote-sensing expert at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (whichpublishes Science). “That extra contextual information helps you to interpret it.”

By comparing the dated satellite images, Myers traced the prison’s evolution. Initially, the government built temporary plywood barracks surrounded by chain-link fences. But as the war dragged on, it built a more permanent facility, Camp Delta, that contained structures closely resembling concrete supermaximum-security prisons. It also significantly expanded Gitmo. Over a 5-year period beginning in April 2003, the number of prison structures soared by nearly 40%; floor space expanded from 42,920 to 61,558 square meters, an increase of about 40%.

Myers thinks the makeshift prison in 2003 reveals how the U.S. military was caught off-guard by the war on terror, capturing suspects before it had prepared a prison, and that the later building boom signaled an intention to hold prisoners for a long period. Given the many questions that human-rights groups have raised about the covert prison over the years, adds Wolfinbarger, it’s somewhat surprising that an archaeologist was the first to map it: “I can’t believe that someone in geography didn’t think to do this.” (A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on Myers’s study and said she could not confirm that the images were of Gitmo.)

There’s quite a bit more to the story, and I must say I think it’s a shame it’s paywalled. It’s of public interest, for starters. And even from a business point of view, I find Nature’s newish practice of providing free access to news and most features, while still paywalling the peer-reviewed content, to make more sense: It spreads lay-audience-level write-ups (and the magazine’s rep) to the public while preserving the the truly exclusive content — the peer-reviewed articles — for subscribers. A nice compromise, methinks. [Disclosure: I’m writing a feature for Nature right now. Conceivably that colors my view — though I did express approval at Nature’s opening of its non-peer-reviewed content at the time it took effect, which would argue I’m in on the idea regardless.)

In any case, this is a juicy and well-written story. Pringle has more interesting work at her website, well worth exploring.

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