Pentagon bans journalists from Guantanamo trial

By Scott Horton

The Gates Pentagon has decided to ban four journalists from covering the Guantánamo proceedings. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reports:

The Pentagon said they were expelling the reporters because they had revealed the name of a former U.S. interrogator whose name is under protective order – but is widely known. The four are Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald and three Canadian reporters, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail, and Steven Edwards of Canwest. The papers can send other reporters to cover the prosecution of Omar Khadr, a Canadian picked [up] by American forces in Afghanistan when he was 15, the Pentagon said. He is now 23.

The U.S. interrogator at the center of the ban controversy was all but identified during a pre-trial hearing earlier in the week, when Khadr’s defense attorney asked a question about a detainee made to kiss the American’s boots. One of the banned reporters, the Toronto Star’s Shephard, has written a book on the Khadr case, “Guatanamo’s Child.” Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, director of Defense Press Operations, told the newspapers that their reporters had “violated established and agreed-upon ground rules governing reporting on Military Commissions proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” “Specifically, your reporters published the name of a witness whose identity was protected in court,” Lapan said.

There is more to this than meets the eye, because the identity of the interrogator is already a matter of public knowledge, and more than these four publications have already disclosed the name. The interrogator gave an on-the-record interview to the Tortonto Star in 2008 and was court-martialed in September 2005, with press accounts giving his name and a specification of the charges against him. He appeared on camera in an Oscar-winning documentary in which he discussed the process of detainee abuse as it was practiced at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan. The notion that his name is a secret is therefore absurd. The order seems to be a pretext for blocking coverage of Guantánamo by critical media. The reporters banned by this order are those who have done the most in-depth coverage of the case of Omar Khadr, who was seized as a child by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and harshly abused–in the view of one of his own interrogators, tortured–during his custody.

Spencer Ackermann writes in the Washington Independent:

Rosenberg is the single most diligent, consistent and experienced Guantanamo Bay reporter in the world, having carved out the Guantanamo beat steadily almost since the detention facility here opened in 2002 and traveled here more frequently than any other journalist. (I personally heard complaints about her from public affairs officers here five years ago – and those complaints amounted to whining about how dogged an investigator she was.) Koring and Edwards have also been invaluable resources about Khadr and Guantanamo to their colleagues these past two weeks.

The Pentagon public-affairs officers would prefer a different sort of reporting—one that regurgitates their own news feed, perhaps with a slight admixture of comments from defense counsel who are themselves subject to tight restrictions about what they can say to the media. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the bulk of major media covering the proceedings at Guantánamo produce.

Things are going very poorly for the Defense Department at Guantánamo. When the proceedings convened, it was learned that the Defense Department had prepared a new set of procedural rules, written entirely in secret without following standard procedures that envisage consultation with the bar. The initial hearings then had to be adjourned so that the prosecutors, defense counsel, and judge could read the new rules. Under international law standards that the Supreme Court ruled binding on the United States in Hamdan, the military commissions are only valid if they are a “regularly constituted court.” There is little doubt that proceedings in the American military-justice tradition, applying the rules normally used in courts martial, would have met this test. But the Guantánamo commissions have departed from those traditions at every turn, making clear that they are “irregular.” The embarrassing secret dealings surrounding the rules coupled with blatant retaliation against critical media serve to highlight their illegitimacy before the actual transactions of the court are even examined.

At this point the only way out for the Obama Administration is to arrange a plea bargain for Khadr. The case is now so thoroughly compromised that any other outcome will only be a further embarrassment.