Obama Administration Demands Amnesia From Reporters Covering Gitmo
Jack Newfield, the legendary investigative reporter, once wrote that if government officials had their way, journalists would be "stenographers with amnesia."
The "amnesia" part, at least, was generally considered a bit of an exaggeration.
But now, the Pentagon has banned four reporters from covering the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because they refused to forget something that had already been reported to the world.
The four reporters were covering military commission hearings at which defense attorneys for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr argued that confessions he made as a gravely wounded 15-year-old shouldn't be admissible in his upcoming trial because they were made under duress.
And indeed, witnesses earlier this week described how Khadr's interrogation began when he was still sedated and lying wounded on a stretcher. A medic testified that he once found Khadr chained by his arms to the door of his cage-like cell, hooded and in tears
But the defense's star witness, on Thursday, was the first U.S. Army interrogator to question Khadr. The interrogator admitted that in an attempt to get Khadr to talk, he told the boy a "fictitious" tale of an Afghan youth who was gang-raped in an American prison and died.
And it wasn't just what he said that was significant, it was also who he was. The interrogator was Army Sgt. Joshua Claus, who pleaded guilty in September 2005 to mistreatment and assault of detainees at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan.
Claus was a central figures in the interrogation of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar whose death in U.S. custody in 2002 was ruled a homicide by military investigators and was the subject of a New York Times investigation and the Oscar-winning documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side".
The military judge presiding over the hearing insisted that Claus's name was protected information, and that he should only be referred to as Interrogator # 1.
But since it was already public record that Claus was Khadr's first interrogator -- and he'd even given an interview last year about his desire to testify -- the four reporters used his name in their Wednesday reports, previewing his testimony.
That was enough to get them thrown off the island.
"That reporters are being punished for disclosing information that has been publicly available for years is nothing short of absurd," Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "Any gag order that covers this kind of information is not just overbroad but nonsensical. Plainly, no legitimate government interest is served by suppressing information that is already well known. "
The decision was announced by Col. Dave Lapan, the Pentagon's director of press operations. He emailed the four news organizations that they could send other reporters to cover military commissions in the future, but that another violation would get their organizations banned entirely.
The decision Is being appealed.
"The company lawyers are looking at the ground rules, the timing of this, and Carol's reporting, in preparation for appealing this decision," said John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Carol Rosenberg, one of the four banned reporters, works for McClatchy's Miami Herald.
The other three reporters are Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of Toronto's Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards of CanWest Newspapers.
"I'm not sure I understand the logic of trying to redact a name that has been in public for some time, of a man who has granted at least one major interview, and been convicted and sentenced," Walcott told HuffPost.
"I hope that this decision is about what the Pentagon said it's about, and that is an attempt to protect a witness -- and not about some of the embarrassing testimony that emerged in the tribunal this week.
"I also hope it is not intended to have a chilling effect of tribunals going forward," he said. "It won't on us... In fact, it may have the opposite effect."
John Stackhouse, editor in chief of the Globe and Mail, was also skeptical. "Banning the information now -- when it is already known around the world -- serves no apparent purpose other than to raise more questions about the credibility of the Guantanamo courts," he said in a statement.
Khadr was shot twice in the back during a Special Forces raid on a suspected al Qaida compound in Afghanistan. He confessed under interrogation to having thrown a hand grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer, 28, and has been charged with murder as a war crime and conspiring with al Qaida. Khadr is now 23.
Claus gave an interview to Michelle Shepard of the Toronto Star (one of the four banished reporters) in March 2008. Shepard wrote:
A former U.S. soldier who spent weeks interrogating Omar Khadr says he wants to testify before a Guantanamo Bay court and rejects any accusations that he harshly treated the Canadian detainee.
In the first interview he has given since leaving the army, Joshua Claus told the Toronto Star that he feels he has been unfairly portrayed concerning his work as an interrogator at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan.
"They're trying to imply I'm beating or torturing everybody I ever talked to," Claus said by telephone yesterday. "I really don't care what people think of me. I know what I did and I know what I didn't do."
Shepard also reported in that story:
Khadr's lawyers fought to get access to Claus at a Guantanamo hearing earlier this month after the prosecution had dropped him from a previous witness list.
Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler accused the prosecution of trying to hide Claus' identity because he had been involved in the interrogation of an Afghan detainee who died in U.S. custody.
Nancy A. Youssef reported Thurdsay for McClatchy Newspapers:
On Wednesday, the judge in the case, Col. Patrick Parrish, reminded reporters that even though Claus' name was public, a protective order intended to keep him anonymous applied to journalists as well.
Rosenberg's report that day included the following sentences: "Canadian reports have identified that interrogator as Army Sgt. Joshua Claus, who pleaded guilty in September 2005 to mistreatment and assault of detainees at Bagram. He was sentenced to five months in jail."
Rosenberg said her story was filed before the judge's warning. She said Claus' name had already been revealed.
"All I did was report what was in the public domain," Rosenberg said....
Pentagon officials said it didn't matter that Claus' name was already widely known.
"If his name was out there, it was not related to this hearing. Identifying him with Interrogator No. 1 was the problem," Lapan said.
"The judge shouldn't have had to remind them. The stories that appeared before violated the rules."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Friday announced it is seeking a meeting with Department of Defense officials to discuss the banishment. The committee also notes that the president judge had previously insisted that a video of an interrogation of Khadr be played in a closed session with no spectators, despite the video's availability to the public on YouTube.
President Obama severely criticized the Bush administration's military commissions during his presidential campaign, and immediately suspended them upon taking office. But five months later, he reopened the door to their use, and now they're up and running again.
The White House is widely expected to overrule Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try the highest-profile terror suspects, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, in federal court, and send them to military commissions instead. Holder, for his part, is gamely trying to defend military commissions to skeptics.
But nothing says "kangaroo court" quite like banning the free press.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.