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US Military Tired of Questions From Media, Restricts Access to Guantanamo

General John F. Kelly, the commander of United States Southern Command who is in charge of Guantanamo military prison, has restricted media access because he is increasingly frustrated with reporters, who “question officials” about President Barack Obama’s failure to close the facility.

The Associated Press reported on Dec. 17 that journalists will now be allowed four trips to Guantanamo per year. The trips will last no more than one day. Reporters will be prohibited from accessing either of the two prison camps, “where a majority of the 107 current prisoners are held.”

The New York Times additionally reported, “The general said he no longer wanted reporters to talk to lower-level guards because it was not their role to opine about detention operations, or to go inside the prison because that could cause disruptions. However, he said, depending on what else is going on, exceptions might be made to let first-time visitors inside.”

Kelly justified the decision by saying military officers are not authorized to talk about why Obama has not closed Guantanamo yet. So, to deal with the problem of being asked questions they do not wish to answer, the solution is to limit the ability of reporters to access the facility.

The general also claimed foreign delegations, which are from countries considering the resettlement of prisoners, and congressional delegations have strained resources. He also noted one reporter allegedly was “very abusive” or “extremely impolite” to a staff member of the prison library.

However, this appears to be another example of how the military makes a mockery of Guantanamo’s motto: “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent.”

On December 5, Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg, who had been painstakingly tracking the number of people on hunger strike (as well as which prisoners were being force-fed by the military), reported the military would no longer release hunger strike data to press.

General John F. Kelly made this decision as well. He believed hunger strike data was “manipulating” public opinion and that the data alone told him “nothing.”

At the time, one of the biggest hunger strikes in the history of Guantanamo was unfolding. It renewed attention to the issue of closing Guantanamo. It forced President Obama to “renew” efforts to release prisoners. However, like the restrictions to media access now, the decision to no longer release hunger strike data was motivated by a desire to control what was printed in the press about Guantanamo.

“JTF-Guantánamo allows detainees to peacefully protest but will not further their protests by reporting the numbers to the public,” declared Navy Commander John Filostrat, who led the public relations team at Guantanamo. “The release of this information serves no operational purpose and detracts from the more important issues, which are the welfare of detainees and the safety and security of our troops.”

More recently, the Guantanamo military commission let intelligence agencies censor public testimony from transcripts of proceedings.

Rosenberg reported on December 6 that “more than 130 pages” had “blacked out” sections. There were 37 pages, which were “completely redacted.” This was testimony reporters in attendance had heard before the agencies decided to engage in censorship. (Note: The military commission’s motto is “Fairness, Transparency, Justice.”)

‘We still do the same things’

As the Times pointed out, “Until now, the military has generally permitted small numbers of reporters to visit the prison throughout the year if no military commission hearing is going on.”

Reporters have been allowed into the two main camps. While they have not been allowed to speak to detainees, they have been able to talk to officers working in the camps.

Kelly told a Times reporter, “The camps have not changed since the last time you’ve been there. We still do the same things.” Which is probably true. The prison still abuses prisoners, especially prisoners who engage in hunger strikes. They subject the prisoners to brutal force-feedings, and they permit officers to humiliate prisoners, most of which are cleared for release.

Finally, the change could not come at a more critical time for the Obama administration. It has about one year left to successfully achieve a key promise that will forever be linked to the president’s legacy. What he does now matters more than ever. But Republicans have never been more rabid when it comes to keeping innocent Guantanamo prisoners jailed indefinitely.

Reports indicate Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has approved the release of Guantanamo prisoners and notified Congress of the planned release of these prisoners by the end of January 2016. This will bring the population to 90 prisoners.

Yet, even as the administration makes moves to release prisoners, former Guantanamo prisoner Shaker Aamer, who was released in October, insists torture and abuse continues.

When the Obama administration most deserves to have its Guantanamo policies scrutinized, the military is acting like it has to make changes to media access to improve “efficiency” at the facility. It’s clear this is about reducing media interest and press coverage of operations to the point where the only stories left are the ones built around propaganda released by the military.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."