WASHINGTON—A Pentagon decision to expel three newspaper reporters and a photographer from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center for suspected terrorists came under fire Wednesday from attorneys for the detainees, who accused the Bush administration of "pulling down a wall of secrecy and avoiding public accountability."
The denunciation came as the journalists, who had arrived in Guantanamo on Saturday after the suicides of three detainees, returned to the United States aboard a military flight.
The Pentagon defended its decision, saying the journalists had been allowed to stay for days even though the event they'd been authorized to cover—military hearings against some of the detainees—had been canceled because of the suicides.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr J.D. Gordon said the decision to expel the journalists came after other reporters complained that the four on the island were being given special treatment.
"We had vociferous protests from a variety of other media," he said. He said two reporters, whom he declined to name, threatened lawsuits unless they were given access to Guantanamo. "They insisted they fly in or the others come out," he said.
The four expelled journalists are Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, Michael Gordon and Todd Sumlin of The Charlotte Observer, and Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times. The Herald and The Observer are both owned by Knight Ridder.
Editors at the newspapers protested the expulsions.
"My belief is that it's in the best interest of the Department of Defense to allow independent news reporting, and I made that argument to them last night in asking that Carol stay, but they were obviously not persuaded," Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler said. "This is a story that has drawn international attention, and it's important that the information that is coming from Guantanamo be delivered by the independent news media and not by the Pentagon."
Rosenberg, who has covered the island prison since it opened in January 2002, said she was invited by Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., who oversees the prison complex, to report on the aftermath of the suicides. She arrived Saturday night on a flight from Miami.
Gordon and Sumlin were at the base to research and take photos for a profile of Col. Mike Bumgarner, who oversees the complex's guards. Bumgarner is from the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Gordon said he'd been told he could stay a week to research the profile, but when the suicides happened, he switched to reporting that story.
In one story, published Tuesday, Gordon quoted Bumgarner as telling his staff that the suicides had destroyed what little trust existed between the jail guards and the prisoners.
Pentagon spokesman Gordon rejected suggestions that the content of the reporters' dispatches had anything to do with their expulsions. He said that a visit by some reporters that's scheduled to begin Monday would go on as scheduled.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents 200 detainees at the camp and has called for outside investigations of treatment at the camp, decried the move.
"This crackdown on the free press makes everyone ask what else they are hiding down there," said center attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez.
Hours after the reporters were removed from the Navy base, Army Maj. Tom Fleener, a defense attorney for one of the detainees, asked that his client's trial be moved from the remote base to a location where news coverage could be assured.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GUANTANAMO JOURNALISTS
COLUMNIST MUG on KRT Direct: CAROL ROSENBERG, TODD SUMLIN
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