Commander reconsidering Guantánamo reporting limits

Marine Gen. John Kelly
Marine Gen. John Kelly U.S. Southern Command

Hours after the White House objected to new limits on journalists’ access to the U.S. military’s detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the general who oversees the facility said he is reconsidering the rules and weighing a plan that might expand access.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, denied that he was trying to restrict reporters’ ability to cover the detention center despite a published report that he wanted to reduce journalists’ visits to just four times a year and only for a day each time.

“I’m not a ‘no’ guy,” Kelly told McClatchy. “All of this is workable.”

Shortly before Kelly’s comments, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest distanced himself from Kelly’s plan, which was first reported in the New York Times.

“I think in general, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that we would be supportive of,” Earnest said.

Coverage of the Guantánamo facility has been a contentious issue for years. Journalists have sparred with the military over what access they should have, what photos could be taken and published, and whether members of Guatánamo’s guard staff can be quoted by name. At one point, the Pentagon even banned four reporters for publishing the name of a witness at a hearing whose identity was already publicly known. The Pentagon reversed the ban after two months under a threat of legal action.

Kelly’s proposed limits on reporter visits to the detention facility did not affect their access to the military commission courtroom, where Judge James Pohl, an Army colonel, has been hearing pretrial motions in the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The detention center is more than five miles from the courtroom in a different section of the sprawling Guantanamo Bay Naval Base called the Detention Center Zone, which is run by Joint Task Force Guantanamo, an authority that includes personnel from across the major military services.

The detention zone is overseen by the Doral, Fla.-based Southern Command, which is run by Kelly, while the remainder of the base is overseen by the U.S. Navy. Kelly is scheduled to leave his post and retire Jan. 14.

No reporter has been allowed to visit the Guantanamo detention center since October.

While eight reporters covered the most recent court hearing last week, they were not permitted to visit the prison or detainees. Longstanding Pentagon rules have required that journalists who want to cover the detention facility do so on separate trips to the naval base.

After reporters and others protested the new restrictions Thursday, Kelly said he was considering a change in which journalists covering the military commission hearings would be allowed to stay at the base an extra day in order to visit the prison.

“We’d offer members of the press who are already there the opportunity to stay one more day to go to the detention facility,” Kelly told McClatchy. “That seems more efficient.”

It has been more than two months since any reporter visited the military prison. The next tour is scheduled for February.

In an article posted to the web late Wednesday, the New York Times quoted Kelly as saying that under his rules, groups of journalists would be allowed to visit four times a year, arriving and departing on the same day. He’d also said that they would not as a general rule be allowed within the actual prison walls, which would largely eliminate their ability to see the detainees.

For most of the period since the Guantánamo prison opened in January 2002, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, small numbers of reporters have been allowed to visit it as long as there was no military commission hearing.

Journalists, who typically arrived on a Monday and left on a Thursday, were not allowed to talk with the detainees, but they could view them and interview military staff members who worked in the detention center. Kelly’s new rules would end those conversations as well.

“As it stands today, there is no opportunity for journalists to go inside the detention center or interview key military personnel about their duty there,” said Dave Wilson, a senior editor who has overseen the Miami Herald’s prize-winning coverage of Guantanamo. “The last journalists visited more than two months ago. So unless something changes, and soon, we’re looking at a long stretch of time without independent reporting.”

107 The number of men now held at Guantanamo.

Kelly noted that any changes he makes could be altered by his successor. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd to replace Kelly as the Southern Command leader starting Jan. 14.

“He will run the show,” Kelly said of Tidd. “As soon as he gets on board, he can do anything he wants as long as it’s within the law.”

Kelly said his decision had been prompted in part by the “abusive” behavior toward military personnel of a reporter who visited the naval base and the prison in October.

“The person was really out of line,” Kelly said. He declined to identify the journalist or the affiliated news organization, saying he did not “want to embarrass them.”

Kelly said there had been other episodes of rude behavior toward his men and women, some of them from unnamed lawyers who are defending the 9/11 detainees and other alleged terrorists before military commissions.

About a month after the confrontation with the reporter in October, the Southern Command abruptly canceled a previously approved visit to the detention center by Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter who has earned multiple journalism honors for her coverage of Guantánamo since it opened.

Kelly said that the cancellation of Rosenberg’s trip, for which she had purchased plane tickets, had nothing to do with her reporting.

“She’s a great reporter and a great person,” Kelly said.

Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014, @jamesmartinrose