May 08, 2010
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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