Our nationwide safety legislation skilled in Washington made his first of many reporting journeys to Guantánamo Bay in 2003. Earlier this month, he toured ISIS fighter prisons in Syria.

The creator after deplaning at a touchdown website in northeastern Syria with a military-escorted congressional delegation touring prisons for accused ISIS fighters captured by the Kurds.
Charlie Savage

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“Can you keep a secret?”

The voice on the cellphone belonged to Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The secret was that he was organizing a bipartisan congressional analysis journey to enter Syrian territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), a Kurdish-led militia that may be a major ally of the United States preventing on the bottom towards the Islamic State.

The delegation would tour prisons the place the S.D.F. is warehousing captive ISIS fighter suspects from almost 50 international locations, elevating a dilemma to which he believes the world must pay extra consideration: What ought to occur to them?

Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the commander of coalition forces preventing in Iraq and Syria, left, and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, on a helicopter trip to one of many prisons, in Ainissa, Syria.CreditCharlie Savage/The New York Times

Plans for such a delicate journey are saved quiet to keep away from tipping off militants a few potential goal, however I had a purpose to find out about them. Senator Graham was inviting me to journey with the group and write no matter I noticed match about what we’d see.

This was a novel alternative. The Kurds usually don’t let journalists tour their ISIS fighter prisons.

I’ve been writing about authorized and coverage issues associated to the federal government’s dealing with of captured terrorism suspects for 15 years — for 3 newspapers and in two books — ever since I made my first of many reporting trips to the American wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003.

I was hooked after picking up my first detention scoop on that trip: The Bush administration had quietly decided to build a permanent, concrete-walled prison at the base to replace the open-air cellblocks the military erected the previous year to hold hundreds of men largely captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The move signaled that its almost off-the-cuff decision to bring hundreds of terrorism suspects to Cuba — claiming it could hold them in indefinite wartime detention without trial — was hardening into a long-term policy.

Prisoner-of-war-style detention, lasting until the end of hostilities, was developed during wars between uniform-wearing armies as a more humane means of preventing enemy captives from returning to the battlefield than slaughtering them. When the Bush administration claimed after the Sept. 11 attacks that it could hold certain terrorism suspects that way, it raised novel issues.

On an August 2014 trip to the prison at Guantánamo Bay — with the Times photojournalist Damon Winter — two detainees in one of the least restrictive sections held a conversation while separated by multiple fences.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Still, even President Obama was unwilling to abandon wartime detention power. His idea for closing the prison, before Congress blocked it, was to move several dozen detainees who were deemed untriable but too dangerous to release to a different prison for continued detention.

Human-rights advocates have relentlessly shamed the United States for that approach, espousing the generally European view that terrorism suspects should be prosecuted or released. Yet many European nations are now in effect using wartime detention to solve their ISIS citizens problem — by outsourcing imprisonment to the Kurds.

Curious to see how the S.D.F. was handling that burden, I applied for a visa to travel to Iraq and then linked up with the congressional delegation — Senator Graham; Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire; and several aides — on a connecting flight from Istanbul.

At the Baghdad airport, we were ordered to put on helmets and body armor and then driven in a convoy to the American embassy compound, a bland campus littered with concrete “duck and cover” shelters in case of incoming mortar fire.

The next morning, a military plane flew us to an airstrip in northern Syria, where we were met by a Special Operations team that would shuttle us around via armored vehicles and helicopters. We went first to Manbij — an Arab town that the S.D.F. liberated from the Islamic State in the fall of 2016 and from which the Turkish military now wants to oust the Kurds — walking through a now-thriving-again market and meeting with local leaders. After stopping at a remote Special Operations base, we traveled to the two prisons I described in my article.

U.S. and Kurdish soldiers heading up to the roof at an ISIS fighter prison in Syria earlier this month.CreditCharlie Savage/The New York Times

For someone who usually works out of a cubicle in Washington — talking with people over the phone or coffee, watching congressional and court hearings, and reading legal documents — it was a very unusual work day.

At the same time I was acutely aware that this quick in-and-out, within the bubble of the physical security the American military was providing for the senators, was nothing compared with the sustained risks taken by my colleagues who routinely go into war zones without such protection to tell the world what is happening there.

Some Pentagon officials had not been thrilled about having a reporter along for a congressional trip that was already a big responsibility. Even as I was boarding the plane to the Middle East, Senator Graham later told me, the military bureaucracy had tried to avoid taking me to a prison site by abruptly saying there would be room in a planned convoy for each lawmaker to take just one aide. Only after he declared that his second spot would go to me, the senator said, had they grudgingly added more vehicles.

As we were heading to the first prison, a military official told me I would not be permitted to take any photographs inside its walls. I leaned on my Guantánamo experience to appeal to Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the commander of the coalition forces fighting in Iraq and Syria, who was accompanying the delegation. I explained to him that at Guantánamo the military permits journalists to take photographs inside the prison so long as detainees’ faces are not visible, and he agreed to switch to “Guantánamo rules.”

As it turned out, there was no way to take any shots of the ISIS detainees from our vantage point outside a cell that would not show their faces. But being able to take other pictures inside the compounds was helpful for remembering details, and a few were decent enough that The Times published them — one on the front page. As colleagues ribbed me about my photojournalism skills, I jokingly vowed by no means to write down once more.

The photograph taken by the creator that ran on The Times’s July 19 entrance web page. “As colleagues ribbed me about my photojournalism skills, I jokingly vowed never to write again.”CreditCharlie Savage/The New York Times

That night, the group flew again to Baghdad. In the embassy mess corridor, we talked over what we had seen. And after flying house, I continued to report out the piece.

I realized extra about why some European governments are reluctant to take their residents again from the S.D.F. In half, it’s as a result of they worry they won’t be able to efficiently prosecute all of them or win sufficiently prolonged sentences below their authorized programs.


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