Pentagon Bans Reporters From Covering Guantanamo Military Commissions

Washington – The Pentagon Thursday banned four reporters, including one from McClatchy Newspapers, from covering future military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, charging that they’d violated ground rules by publishing the name of a former Army interrogator who was a witness at a hearing there this week.

The news organizations — McClatchy, the Toronto Star, the Toronto Globe and Mail and CanWest Newspapers of Canada — said they’d appeal the Pentagon’s decision and that their reporters hadn’t violated the ground rules.

Col. David Lapan, the director of Defense Press Operations, said the ban only affects only the individual reporters and that their organizations would be allowed to send others to future hearings. The banned reporters were Carol Rosenberg of McClatchy’s Miami Herald, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards of CanWest Newspapers.

“We have been covering Guantanamo for years and we’ve always played by rules — and we did in this case as well,” said Mindy Marques, the managing editor of the Miami Herald. “We expect to sort this out and continue to cover this important story, as we have always done.”

At issue were news articles earlier this week that identified a witness at a hearing for Canadian detainee Omar Khadr as former Army Sgt. Joshua Claus. The Pentagon had asked reporters to identify him as Interrogator No. 1.

Claus has been the subject of news stories since 2005, when he was convicted by a U.S. military court martial of abusing detainees at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2005, a conviction that earned him a five-month prison term.

He was first publicly identified as Khadr’s interrogator on March 13, 2008, during a hearing at Guantanamo. He subsequently gave an on-the-record interview to Shephard of the Toronto Star, one of the banned reporters, where he asserted that he’d never abused Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was taken captive by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002.

“That reporters are being punished for disclosing information that has been publicly available for years is nothing short of absurd — any gag order that covers this kind of information is not just overbroad but nonsensical,” said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. “Plainly, no legitimate government interest is served by suppressing information that is already well known.”

Joel Simon, the executive director the Committee to Protect Journalists, called the bans part of “a long history of lack of access for journalists covering military tribunals and other events at Guantanamo Bay.”

“This certainly is a very drastic step,” he said.

On Wednesday, the judge in the case, Col. Patrick Parrish, reminded reporters that even though Claus’s name was public, a protective order intended to keep his name 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.

“I am disappointed because I did not violate the ground rules,” Rosenberg said. “I am also surprised because we heard nothing about this, and the ban was issued nearly 24 hours after the piece first appeared.”

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 (this week) violated the rules.”

Before covering a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, reporters must agree to several ground rules about what they can publish and what they must withhold from the public to either protect the witnesses, the rights of the defendant or the process itself.

In addition to the judge’s reminder, Lapan said the reporters received a written copy of the ground rules upon their arrival at Guantanamo on April 26.

The banned reporters are among the most seasoned on military tribunals and the Khadr case. Rosenberg is the longest-serving reporter at the American detention center and has covered every hearing of a military commission, with the exception of one week, since the proceedings began in 2004.

Shephard published a book about the Khadr case. Koring and Edwards have consistently followed Khadr’s case for their news organizations.