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Pentagon Orders U.S. Reporters to Exit Guantanamo

Posted in the database on Wednesday, June 14th, 2006 @ 16:01:52 MST (1958 views)
by Greg Mitchell and Joe Strupp    Editor & Publisher  

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In the aftermath of the three suicides at the controversial Guantanamo prison facility in Cuba last Saturday, reporters with the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald were ordered by the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to leave the island today.

A third reporter and a photographer with the Charlotte Observer were given the option of staying until Saturday but, E&P has learned, were told that their access to the prison camp was now denied. An E&P "Pressing Issues" column on Tuesday covered an eye-opening dispatch by the Observer's Michael Gordon carried widely in other papers. He had listened in, with permission, as the camp commander gave frank instructions to staff on how to respond to the suicides.

All four journalists left the island today and arrived in Miami about 12:30 p.m.

A Pentagon spokesman, J.D. Gordon, confirmed the order to leave the island this morning, but told E&P it was unrelated to the stories produced by the journalists, while admitting that Gordon's piece had caused "controversy." He asserted that the move was related to other media outlets threatening to sue if they were not allowed in. He did not say why, instead of expelling the reporters already there, the Pentagon did not simply let the others in, beyond citing new security concerns.

"All three have been screaming [about the order to leave] like it is going out of style," he said.

A curt e-mail to reporters Carol Rosenberg of the Herald (who spoke to E&P about the expulsion) and Carol Williams of the L.A. Times mentioned a directive from the office of Rumsfeld, and stated: "Media currently on the island will depart on Wednesday, 14 June 2006 at 10:00 a.m. Please be prepared to depart the CBQ [quarters] at 8:00 a.m.''

Rich Bard, deputy world editor for the Herald, said "It was our hope that we could work out an arrangement with the Department of Defense to keep her in Guantanamo. We thought it in the best interest of our readers to have access."

J.D. Gordon, the Pentagon press officer, told E&P that Rosenberg and Williams had been invited to come to Guantanamo last weekend for the start of tribunals. Mike Gordon and Observer photographer Todd Sumlin, meanwhile, arrived to produce a profile of the camp commander, who hails from North Carolina. The suicides of the three detainees happened to occur in this time period and the tribunals were cancelled.

The reporters, with the approval of the base commander, covered the aftermath of the suicides, and interviewed attorneys who ripped the legal horrors for the inmates, few of whom have been formally charged with any crime. A lawyer who had tried to represent one of the dead men was accusing the U.S. government "of thwarting his efforts with bureaucratic maneuvers" and lamented that justice can never be done for his client now that he is dead.

After stories started appearing the reporters ordered to leave, on a hastily arranged military flight to Miami, over the protests of their editors.

Tom Fiedler, the editor of the Herald, wrote to the Pentagon, "Ms. Rosenberg arrived at Guantanamo and proceeded to report on the suicides with the full support of base personnel and with the direct knowledge of Gen. John Craddock, who arrived on Sunday. At no time did anyone state or suggest that Ms. Rosenberg's presence was unauthorized or even undesired.

"Neither Ms. Rosenberg nor The Miami Herald seek to remain indefinitely at Guantanamo nor to have exclusive or special access. However, we respectfully suggest that, while aspects of the suicides remain undetermined it is in the best interest of the DOD and the public that the news media be present."

The Pentagon spokesman told E&P that Rumsfeld's office was overruling any of the permissions from military at the base.

Mike Gordon of the Charlotte Observer told E&P today he had not received the letter from Rumsfeld's office but had been told that he could leave Wednesday or stay until Saturday -- but access to the prison had been ended.

"He was doing a hometowner, a hometowner takes one day," J.D. Gordon, the Pentagon's press officer, said. "You would think that a man allowed down for a whole week would be a bit more gracious about it. Have the good grace and class to leave."

The Pentagon spokesman told E&P that recent activities surrounding the suicides of three detainees required heavier security and the removal of outside media.

"We told [the journalists] on Monday that we are in a difficult position," said Gordon, the Pentagon press officer. "We are trying to be impartial and fair." He added that pressure from other media outlets to be given similar access also forced the complete press ban. "We are between a rock and a hard place," he said.

He told E&P that Williams and Rosenberg were originally part of a 10-person media group invited to arrive Saturday to cover a military tribunal set for this week. But on Saturday, the tribunal, also known in the military as a commission, had been postponed following last week's suicides of three detainees. Press Officer Gordon said the Pentagon informed all 10 journalists on Saturday that they were not allowed to visit. All 10, including reporters from Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, had planned to arrive via military aircraft.

But he said that Williams and Rosenberg arrived on their own, via a commercial aircraft, and were allowed to be on. Michael Gordon, who had also arrived Saturday, was allowed to remain for his story. "We didn't like it, we didn't think it was appropriate," the press officer said of their arrivals. "But it was plausible."

By Sunday, however, J.D. Gordon said he began getting complaints from other news outlets, such as Fox News, AP, CNN, and Reuters, claiming that their reporters should be allowed on the island if the three other journalists were there. "The other media started to have a mini-phone riot," he told E&P. "'Hey, why are they there?' We had a major issue on our hands for other media to 'either get them in there or we have to see you in court.'"

He would not identify which media outlets threatened legal action, but said more than a dozen news outlets called to complain between Sunday and Monday. Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of AP, said her outlet was among those who sought equal access -- but said legal action was never threatened. "We never begrudge other reporters being there as long as we can be there, too," she told E&P, adding that the military could have accomodated more reporters on the site. "The Pentagon makes lots of complicated logistical decisions that are more difficult than that one. We are not the most difficult problem for them to manage."

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a statement today declaring, “If the United States wants to restore its credibility as a democracy in the eyes of the world, it should be inviting journalists in, not kicking them out. Our government insists it has nothing to hide, but its actions show otherwise."

Still, J.D. Gordon said the decision was made that all of the media had to leave the island. But he denied any accusation that such expulsions were in reaction to any of the tough-minded reporting.

"No, totally not true," he said. "Some of the things [Gordon] wrote caused controversy, about changing detainees clothes and forced entry. But we are not into content management. The issue was that other media were threatening to take us to court."

Bard, the Herald editor, told E&P: "Our knowledge of some of the details is limited." When asked about the Pentagon's contention that other media outlets barred from the island had complained, he said that should not affect his own reporters.

The Committee for Constitutional Rights in New York, which was representing the three men who committed suicide, released a statement today: "At a time when the administration must be transparent about the deaths at Guantanamo, they are pulling down a wall of secrecy and avoiding public accountability. This crackdown on the free press makes everyone ask what else they are hiding down there. This press crackdown is the administration's latest betrayal of fundamental American values. The Bush Administration is afraid of American reporters, afraid of American attorneys and afraid of American laws."

_______________

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