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Pentagon Bans Four Reporters from Guantanamo Trials

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Al Pessin

The Pentagon has banned four reporters from covering military commission hearings for alleged terrorists at the Guantanamo detention center because they revealed the name of a witness.  But the man's name and role in the case were well-known, leading the news organizations involved and press freedom advocates to sharply criticize the ban.  

The hearings this week at Guantanamo involved the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 15-years-old when he was detained in Afghanistan eight years ago.  He is accused of being a member of al-Qaida, killing a U.S. Army sergeant during a battle and helping to plant roadside bombs.

At the hearings, his lawyers claimed he was abused when he was first detained at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.  To support their case, they called one of his interrogators as a witness, a man who has been convicted of abusing detainees.  The man testified that he had never physically abused Khadr, but acknowledged he spoke to him harshly and told him he might be raped in prison if he did not cooperate.

The interrogator's name is well known to those who follow the case.  He gave an on-the-record interview to a Canadian reporter who wrote a book about the Khadr case.  But reporters are not allowed to identify witnesses at the military commissions, and the judge specifically admonished them not to do so in this instance, even though the man's name had been published before.  Four reporters defied the judge and have been banned from covering future military commissions.  

A Pentagon Spokesman, Colonel David Lapan, explained the decision. "They all had copies of these ground rules.  They were well known.  They were established.  And, in this case, the judge had reminded them in court two days ago that the protective order protecting the names, the identities, of the witnesses applied to them.  Yet, they published anyway," he said.

The banned reporters are the Canadian who wrote the book about Khadr, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, one of the most experienced Guantanamo reporters Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, Paul Koring from the Toronto Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards of Canada's Canwest newspapers.

Officials of the newspapers and civil liberties and press freedom groups have objected to the ban.  The American Civil Liberties Union called the move "absurd" and "draconian," and said "no legitimate government interest is served by suppressing information that is already well known."

At the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said "common sense has apparently left" the process. "To ban the use of his name when virtually anybody who cares about this proceeding and is following it closely knows who he is is really, I think, strange," she said.

Dalglish also noted that the ban on these reporters will remove a tremendous amount of expertise from the coverage of the military commissions.  She said the reporters have followed the commission rules for years, but she acknowledged they took a risk in this instance. "You defy a judge's order at your peril, even if the judge's order is completely unreasonable.  Judges love to be in control.  Judges believe that they need to be in control.  So, when you directly defy a judge in something like this, it's like poking him or her in the eye," she said.

At the Pentagon, Colonel Lapan indicated it was not the particular information the reporters disclosed that was the problem, but rather that they violated the ground rules, particularly after being admonished by the judge. "It has been standard practice in any number of instances to have ground rules, and for any variety of reasons, whether it's security, operational security, personal privacy, I mean all of those things.  You have all operated under ground rules at one time or another for various reasons.  And you all understand the consequences for violating the ground rules.  That's what happened here," he said.

Some of the newspapers whose reporters were banned have said they will appeal the decision to senior Pentagon officials.  In the meantime, the Pentagon says the newspapers are free to send other reporters to cover the Khadr trial and other military commission proceedings.

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