Conspiracy theory debunked? Pentagon says mysterious Gitmo flight was just a field trip

A detainee kneels in prayer at sunset on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 at Camp Six at Guantánamo’s Detention Center Zone. The military approved release of this photo.
A detainee kneels in prayer at sunset on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017 at Camp Six at Guantánamo’s Detention Center Zone. The military approved release of this photo.

The question has intrigued bloggers and internet conspiracy theorists since a mysterious flight appeared on plane tracking sites: Who or what was aboard a charter flight that left Langley Air Force Base in Virginia early in the morning of March 18 for the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba?

Here’s the answer, according to the office the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

Several dozen senior enlisted troops — E9s, as they are known in the military — on a day trip to the war-on-terror prison. They spent the day in the Detention Center Zone, taking a tour and getting briefed on how the 1,700-member prison staff called a Joint Task Force operates, according to Army Master Sgt. Robert Couture, a spokesman at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

They were members of a program called “Keystone,” which brings together several dozen senior troops at the National Defense University for lectures on U.S. strategic interests, threats to national security, the intelligence community, the military and Congress, and foreign policy.

That’s Keystone, not the fictitious Treadstone of “Bourne Supremacy” fame. Keystone’s mission statement says the group travels by military air transport in the continental U.S. But for the March 18 trip, the group traveled on a Miami Air International charter to the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, something Couture said the Keystone course has done at least once before, in 2016.

It’s 183 miles from CIA headquarters in Virginia to Langley Air Force Base. Google maps

Couture said only Keystone participants and their chaperones were on the flight, which came and went from Guantánamo in the same day. Their next stop: El Paso, Texas, and an anti-drug trafficking operation called Joint Task Force North.

“They told me there was no one else other than the people who were on the Keystone roster and the crew,” Couture said. In other words, no people in shackles and orange jumpsuits, even if no passenger aboard the flight would say so to the Herald.

Guantánamo prison’s culture of secrecy may have fueled the question of whether the Central Intelligence Agency or Department of Defense had secretly dispatched new prisoners there — advanced by a blogger who calls himself an “opinion journalist” and whose Twitter stream features a photo of a black helicopter.

To be sure, however, it was also fed by the name of the airport where the flight originated, Langley Air Force Base — a three and a half-hour drive south of CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, whose campus is colloquially called Langley for the name of the unincorporated community where the spy agency took up residence in 1961. Keystone students had been meeting in Suffolk, Virginia, Couture explained.

If anyone is still suspicious, Pentagon spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins said this on Tuesday: The prison census remained at 41 — the steady state throughout the Trump administration, and the same men left there when President Barack Obama left office. That includes a Saudi captive whose plea deal promised repatriation to prison in the kingdom on Feb. 20.

To answer a question first posed by a lawyer who spotted the conspiracy theory, the Miami Herald contacted the CIA, Pentagon’s Office of Public Affairs, the U.S. Navy base, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Air Force and National Defense University before landing at the office of Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At the prison, spokeswoman Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos declined to say what portions of the Detention Center Zone the Keystone course visited. Nor would she confirm that the flight carried no new detainees to the base. “This group of leaders observed firsthand the professionalism, skill, and discipline of the young men and women who serve,” she said.

The sun sets on Guantánamo’s Detention Center, Feb. 10, 2017. The military approved release of this photo. EMILY MICHOT

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg