Commentary: For reporters, the rules at Guantanamo change daily

Conncertina wire at Guantanamo that, as of June 27, 2007, could be photographed
Conncertina wire at Guantanamo that, as of June 27, 2007, could be photographed Peter Tobia/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT

WASHINGTON — Guantanamo's Camp Justice is a place where you can sit at your laptop or by your phone only if there's a member of the military within earshot.

It's a place where you can go to court only in the custody of a military public affairs officer. Inside, if there's only one escort — this happened recently — and somebody has to go to the bathroom, every reporter has to leave court, too.

It's a place where a soldier stands over your shoulder, looks in your viewfinder and says 'Don't take that picture, I'll delete it.'

This happened earlier in July. The government censor stands in front of a No Photography sign and says, "New policy, the sign and scene behind are now OK. Have at it." You take your camera to a shed for a security review a few minutes later and a sergeant says, "Um, 'No Photography' signs are forbidden." "They just told us it was OK," I say. "For real?" he asks. "For real," I reply. He deletes it anyway. There was a sliver of concrete in the frame. The fringes of a bunker you're not allowed to see.

And it's a place where the Pentagon believes it can tell you not to include in your story the name of a man who outed himself in a newspaper interview in 2008 to clear his name.

It's a place where, if you ask why, they tell you, "That's the rules ma'am." If you say that wasn't the rule a year ago, a month ago — they shrug and say that's the rule today.

You can't write that man's name any more. Never mind that reporters at the same war court reported that same interrogator's name in Guantanamo stories in 2008.

I go to Guantanamo to write about a place the government intentionally chose to be outside the rule of law. The Supreme Court decided otherwise.

It's a place the Pentagon likes to call the most transparent detention center on Earth. Hundreds of reporters have visited there, they say, since the first al Qaida suspects arrived eight years ago.

They skip the part about how few go back more than once — stymied by the sheer frustration at the rules, the hoops, the time, and the costs of doing basic journalism. Being a court reporter. Writing a feature story. Conducting an interview.

I'm here to tell you what it's like to be a reporter at Guantanamo. It's hard.

Not just because you sleep in tent city where the ventilators and generators sound like you're inside a jet engine. Nearly everyone else expected in court gets housing elsewhere. The lawyers have trailers. The translators get townhouses and the judge and juries get guest quarters. The reporters get tents because if you protest, guess what they say: Don't come.

Did you know there are hotels at Guantanamo? We used to get rooms there, and now we can't check into them.

A reporter can't just fly to Guantanamo either. To cover a 3.5-hour hearing on Monday, I flew from Miami to Washington on Saturday, stayed in a hotel and went to Andrews Air Force Base Sunday morning to pay $400 to ride the Pentagon plane that reporters are required to take to cover commissions. I've been doing this a long time. Sometimes I can find a direct flight from South Florida to Guantanamo. I used to take them. Not anymore. Now it's forbidden.

It's hard to be a reporter at Guantanamo because when you ask to read an unclassified motion, see the judge's scheduling order that's been sent out in a mass e-mail, find out who testified under subpoena, get a copy of a video already leaked to "60 Minutes" the answer is "no" — because those are the rules.

Earlier this month, I covered a really crucial crossroads hearing for Omar Khadr, a Canadian who's been held at Guantanamo since he was 16. He fired his legal team, revealed a secret government offer of a plea deal, announced a boycott but then said that maybe, after a third of his life at Guantanamo, he'd like to function as his own lawyer. It's a week later and they still won't release a copy of the motion that was argued.

I've covered Supreme Court arguments and murder and mayhem trials in Massachusetts Superior Court. I've reported spy cases, done gavel to gavel of a court martial. This is a court like none other I've ever seen.

You can't get up in the morning and stand on line to cover it. You can't bring a lawyer to protest if there's a closure. The public and the press have no standing. Increasingly, you can't read the motions in advance. You can't ask the lawyers during a break to clarify something. You can't go home at night. You can't check into a hotel.

There's a court security officer, a nice guy, a contractor paid by the Pentagon. He tells the sketch artist in the court room whose nose and eyes she can sketch. If something "protected" slips out in court, it's his job to send word to the writers: You can't print it.

When the sketch artist, Janet Hamlin, drew the first public image of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, after years in CIA custody, she dutifully showed it to the security officer.

He takes it to KSM, who studies it and sends Janet a message: Find my FBI photo and fix it. My nose is too big. You see, at Guantanamo, even an alleged terrorist gets to be a censor.

When the topic comes up in court of what psychotropic drugs were given another accused 9/11 conspirator, Ramzi bin al Shibh, the courtroom censor hits a white noise button so reporters viewing from a glass booth can't hear the names of the drugs. Why? One minder said it's because Ramzi bin al Shibh has HIPAA health privacy rights. In a place where they still argue that the Constitution doesn't apply.

Guantanamo is a place where you get assigned seats in court, and if you're me you usually get one of the two or three seats that can't see the witness stand. Even if the media gallery is mostly empty.

It wasn't always that way. When the court opened in the summer of 2004, reporters were VIPs, afforded seats front and center — and during breaks the lawyers would lean over the bar and explain, amplify. We stayed in guest quarters.

Now, in court, according to the ground rules, you can't talk to the lawyers, even during breaks. Even if they want to be quoted.

It's a place where for years a public affairs officer would scrupulously provide the number of captives being force-fed. This summer, it stopped. We never give out those figures, they said. I protest. I ask again earlier this month. How many of the 180 are being tube fed? Answer: About half of less than 10. Huh?

It's a place where one day in the cafeteria, your escorts harp on you to display your media badge. Then another tells you to put it away because it's creeping out the troops.

It's a place where they say you can never take pictures at McDonalds. But I have, with permission and an escort. Where they say no one has ever taken pictures in Khalid Sheik Mohammed's courtroom, the maximum-security bunker. But I have. They took me there, and approved the photograph.

It's a place where they clear the court so only those with security clearances can see a video of a Canadian agent questioning Omar Khadr. We are taken back to the filing center, where we watch it on YouTube. Canadian courts released it more than a year ago.

It's a place where now, suddenly this summer, defense lawyers can't step inside the air-conditioned press conference room — cost to taxpayers: $49,000 — unless the prosecutors also want to brief. So reporters now do mini pressers with defense attorneys in the humid, filthy hangar.

It's a place where the defense lawyers are barred from setting foot inside the filing center, but the Military Commissions deputy legal adviser comes and goes as he pleases.

It's a place where some years back, a colleague got a map of the base in her press packet. On her return, she brings it back. A minder sees it at her computer and confiscates it. You're not allowed to have that. But it's still included in every guest packet at Guantanamo's guest quarters.

Some of the treatment seems petty.

How about this: They control the access to food at times and somehow forget there have been, consistently, Muslims and vegetarians among the media. Some years back an officer with the Louisiana National Guard declared it too inconvenient to let us go out to eat and sent us to our quarters with a stack of pork pizzas. Two journalists from Canada who had been working full tilt all day went hungry until breakfast.

Once, a Chinese reporter, an official guest of the foreign press center, filmed her standup from a pre-approved spot. Escorts took her there, and watched while she did it. The next day she came to me bewildered. They deleted the shot in the spot they approved because there was a fluorescent orange barrier in the distance. Surely, I said, you must've said something that was protected. Not likely. The censor shut off the sound and fast-forwarded through the standup because he didn't speak Chinese.

Minor stuff? Not if you're trying to do your job.

I don't break the rules. I protest the ones that make no sense. Now they've got a new expansive interpretation of military censorship authority. A colleague calls it a bid to impose collective amnesia on reporters of things we've known for years. I say protect the secrets that are secret, not the prerogative. Don't create a bunch of ad hoc rules that keep us from doing our jobs. Some days we can't challenge all of them. They come too fast, without rhyme or reason.

(This article is adapted from a speech given to the National Press Club in Washington by Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for The Miami Herald, who was one of four reporters banned in May from covering future military commission hearings for publishing the already publicly known name of a witness that the Pentagon wanted kept secret. The Pentagon lifted the ban after news media attorneys complained such restrictions are unconstitutional and illegal under the Military Commissions Act of 2009. On Monday, Aug. 2, the Pentagon has agreed to meet with news media representatives to discuss the ground rules for covering Guantanamo. Rosenberg, who has covered the detention camps at Guantanamo since they opened in January 2002, is expected to be among the attendees.)


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Follow Carol Rosenberg's Guantanamo reports on Twitter.

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