Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Reporters Kicked Off Gitmo

Officials say the decision was one of "fairness" and in the context of threatened lawsuits from unrepresented media outlets.

I still think it's a dumb move, not to mention another example of this administration's tin ear at key moments in time.

NEW YORK 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.

(Here's the link to Gordon's column, and here's the one to the above-referenced "Pressing Issues" column.)

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.
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 [sic] ordered to leave, on a hastily arranged military flight to Miami, over the protests of their editors.
The Pentagon spokesman told E&P that Rumsfeld's office was overruling any of the permissions from military at the base.

This looks bad and smells bad, and the fact that the blocking of reporters from Gitmo is coming straight from SecDef Donald Rumsfeld's office is front and center among the reasons why. Is nobody there sharp enough to realize that sort of move helps to confirm all the accusations of heavy-handed secrecy and aversion to accountability?

Sure, the article cites "security concerns," but what are they? I can see the point if indeed the military permitted hordes of journalists in, but I'm not seeing the compelling reason or evidence as to why they have to do that, no matter how much some media outlets bitch and moan. As it stands, and given some of this administration's track record, one has to wonder, rather cynically, if the "security" being sought is from "more bad press."

About those complaining news outlets:

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 [sic] 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."

Nowhere in the article are we told what organizations threatened lawsuits. If indeed that happened, why not name names? In any case, there's a reasonable argument to be made--for security, logistical and other reasons--to limit the additional number of people at the prison. After all, it's not the military's job to worry about aggrieved parts of the media that are upset over lack of "equal" access to ratings- or circulation-boosting scoops, or to have to seriously disrupt routines or suck up the time of personnel to accommodate everyone. (Limiting the number of reporters is not without precedent, either; the media outlets know this, and if they threatened lawsuits, it was for self-serving reasons.) Why not just let in reporters from wire services--to which the other media outlets have access, and, goodness knows, on which they rely rather heavily--if the number of additional civilians at Gitmo is the real issue?

The whole thing strikes me as fishy. What's the real scoop here?