Military hearings are underway for 14 high-value terror suspects at Gitmo. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be hearing their stories – reporters are banned from the proceedings. The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg describes “combatant status review tribunals,” one of the sole sources of information from Guantanamo Bay.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The “worst of the worst” is how Donald Rumsfeld described the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. For the most part, we've been forced to take his word for it. But after a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that U.S. citizens, at least, had the right to challenge their detentions, the Pentagon set up a process whereby detainees could have their day in court. And when I say court, I mean a trailer where a military panel hears from the detainee and decides whether or not he's really an enemy combatant. BOB GARFIELD: The answer to that question is almost certain to be yes in the latest round of combatant status review tribunals that started Friday. In the hot seat are 14 of the highest-valued terror suspects, supposedly the worst of the worst of the worst, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
They were transferred to Gitmo last summer after spending years in the CIA's global network of secret prisons, but hopes that the tribunals would finally give us a glimpse of these men were dashed this week when the Pentagon, citing national security concerns, banned reporters from covering them.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg has been reporting on detainee issues for five years. She says in the early days of the tribunals, the government took a much different tack. CAROL ROSENBERG: They wanted us there. They went out of their way to bring in flights and sponsor trips for reporters to come in and sit at a table and watch these things. You had to sign some ground rules, and the most difficult one was if the man uttered his name in the course of the proceeding or you found out his name, you were forbidden to report it. BOB GARFIELD: They want reporters there to report on proceedings judging the fate of people whom they cannot name? CAROL ROSENBERG: Exactly. What they were saying was we have a process, and we are going to show this process to reporters, and they're going to tell you that people come in and can make an argument. And then we're going to make a decision. And so, see, America, you can trust what we do down here because we have a process. BOB GARFIELD: When we envision this hearing, I guess it would be useless to think of something from Law and Order or even The Caine Mutiny. It's not going to look like that, is it? CAROL ROSENBERG: It's pretty basic and crude. I've attended a number of these in the trailer inside Camp Delta, and it's detainee –– a prisoner in a uniform with what they call a three-piece suit, which is shackles around his arms and waist and legs, padlocked to the floor. He's sitting on a white plastic chair, and he's facing off with three military officers, and this is his chance to tell the U.S. military why they're wrong to hold him. BOB GARFIELD: He and his lawyer and his witnesses? CAROL ROSENBERG: There are no lawyers. This is a process that was created by the military to somehow resemble a battlefield status hearing. They do allow him, under certain circumstances, to bring another detainee, who will get shackled into the next plastic chair next to him to a padlock on the ground, and he can help him make his argument. But there are no lawyers. BOB GARFIELD: Just a wild guess here –– those hearings that you witnessed, did anyone get freed? CAROL ROSENBERG: [LAUGHS] That's sort of the irony of the whole process. You don't know. Basically, the reporter and the detainee get led into this room. You all sit in your places. He makes his argument. You take your notes. They declare the unclassified portion of it over. You leave. He leaves. Then they open up the secret file. Then they decide whether or not he's an enemy combatant. And then they make a recommendation up to Washington.
And what we know is 30-some of these 500-plus were actually found not to be enemy combatants. But we don't - I don't know whether the guy I watched tell him, that wasn't me, Colonel, you've got the wrong guy, we don't know if they decided they had the wrong guy. BOB GARFIELD: You know, I can see why the Pentagon would want to bring the press in to show off their supposed transparency in dealing with these prisoners. But from the press’ point of view, unable as you are to name names or to report outcomes, what is the point? CAROL ROSENBERG: Look, if you remember, what everybody saw across five years was guys in masks and shackles and orange jumpsuits being led around, all identical; there was no way to sort of single them out. And now here's a guy telling a story. I pulled a story I wrote from November 2004, and it was a 27–, 28-year-old Yemeni guy with a little beard, and he told a story.
I don't know what was in his file, but what he told was he was in a madrassa, a school in Pakistan, he got rolled up and handed over to the Americans, and that the Americans said he was al Qaeda because his school was a front for al Qaeda. And he said, basically, guys, I don't know that that was true. Show me the proof that this was an al Qaeda school, but I'm telling you I'm not a member of al Qaeda.
We don't know whether that guy actually was released as not a member of al Qaeda, but we did get to watch him make an argument. These proceedings gave us a window into the lives of these human beings. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the current tribunals taking place for the so-called "high-value" detainees. What do you think was behind the decision to bar reporters from these proceedings altogether? CAROL ROSENBERG: I think that the Pentagon likes to control the narrative when it comes to Guantanamo. And they knew if you put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a white plastic chair shackled to the ground and three reporters there, he might say things that the government doesn't want the world to know. He might describe the circumstances of his capture. He might describe the circumstances of an interrogation.
If a guy in that chair says, you know, Colonel, they nearly drowned me and I confessed to crimes I never committed in places where I never was, we would want to write that, even if I signed a ground rule in which I am told that I'm not allowed to report it.
A couple of years ago, a colonel said to me, you know, we still don't have one of those Men in Black flashy things that can erase it from your brain. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Carol. Thank you so much. CAROL ROSENBERG: Sure. I'm always glad to talk about Guantanamo. BOB GARFIELD: Carol Rosenberg covers the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for The Miami Herald.