After a tumultuous year at the war-on-terror detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — where the U.S. military’s motto is “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent” — operations are cloaked in secrecy.
The prison approaches the start of its 13th year next week with a new reclusive regime that no longer discloses what was once routinely released information.
The daily tally of hunger striking detainees — the protest that engulfed more than 100 prisoners at its peak this summer — stopped in December.
Guards and other prison camp troops are under orders to withhold their names when talking to reporters.
On the witness stand in the war court recently a lawyer in the uniform of an Air Force officer gave sworn testimony under a curious, unexplained fake name — “Major Krueger.”
Guantánamo is remote, and what is happening there in this new era has mostly gone unnoticed. However, one person is rattled: New Yorker Rita Lasar, a peace activist whose brother died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that spawned America’s offshore detention center.
“I pay attention to this very much,” says Lasar, 82, who visited Guantánamo last year to watch a week of war court proceedings. Her brother, Abraham Zelmanowitz, was a 9/11 hero. He died staying at the side of a paraplegic office mate on the 27th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Lasar wanted the 9/11 trial in New York not only for proximity but because, as she saw it: “Guantánamo was set up for one reason only, to keep everything secret.
“Just because my brother died, that doesn’t mean my country has to be changed completely. I’m 82 years old. I lived through McCarthy for God’s sake. This is worse than McCarthy.”
The government controls access to everything pertaining to Guantánamo. Journalists have to get the military’s permission to go there, navigate censorship of their pictures, wait 40 seconds to hear what happens in court and then wait weeks to see court filings.
Until recently, soldiers and sailors serving there could decide for themselves whether to give a reporter their name. Many didn’t, saying they feared retribution by al-Qaida. Some did, eager to talk about their work to counter claims of torture or talk about the hardship of service.
Last month, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly decided that only a few senior officers could disclose their names to reporters. Kelly is commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which supervises the prison.
Southcom spokesman Army Col. Greg Julian said Kelly imposed the new rules on contact with reporters for “force protection” purposes, invoking a military catch-all that generally suggests a heightened state of alert triggered by intelligence.
No specific threat prompted the move, said Julian, and the new policy is not written down anywhere.
The current crackdown on information can range from the mildly curious to the outright comedic.
At times it seems to signify a gratuitous use of power by troops on rotation with the sudden authority to yield a censor’s scissors. At times, it suggests a government bureaucracy whose default policy is knee-jerk secrecy.
• In November, the Obama administration finally got its long-promised parole-board hearings underway at Guantánamo, with a session run by a Pentagon team whose motto is “Principled, Credible, Sustainable.” No reporters or other observers were allowed to watch.
More than a month later, the unit has yet to make public the part of the transcript where a prisoner pleads for his freedom. The process, which is called a Periodic Review Board, is partly meant to reassure the public that the administration is making sound decisions on whether to let detainees leave Guantánamo.
Why the delay? An official blamed bureaucracy, an “inter-agency process” that lets six different government officers, including the Directorate of National Intelligence, weigh in on what should be kept secret.
• An Army staff sergeant serving as a censor seized several days worth of video from a French television reporter who traveled to the base in December under the sponsorship of the Secretary of Defense’s public affairs operation — and deleted imagery of children sitting on Santa’s lap at the base commissary.
A few days later, the public affairs team published a similar photo — Santa and smiling kids — on the cover of the prison staff newsletter.
The reporter for Canal+, France’s version of HBO, had gotten permission to interview Santa but not to include children in the image.
Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force, has refused to take questions on the inner workings of the 19,000-book prison camp library — a place that other public affairs officers routinely discussed.
• Another example of pick-and-choose transparency occurred at the war court last month during a hearing creating the conditions for the trial of the five alleged Sept. 11 plotters.
A military staff attorney assigned to the prison camp for ex-CIA captives testified as Air Force Maj. Krueger, a pseudonym.
Two Navy commanders who did that job earlier — George Massucco, a federal prosecutor in Puerto Rico, and Jennifer Strazza, a civilian employee of the National Security Agency — were afforded no such anonymity. Why “Krueger?” The explanation may be contained in a so-far sealed court filing.
Using a pseudonym “puts a patina of normality on a thing that could be designed purposefully to be misleading,” said David Nevin, the Pentagon-paid civilian lawyer for alleged 9/11 plot mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
“When you use a fake name, a casual observer looks at the thing and sees something that looks completely normal,” said Nevin, an Idaho-based criminal defense attorney. “You use ‘Mr. X’ or ‘Mr. Y’ or ‘Mr. Z,’ someone knows on its face that it’s a code.”
Defense lawyers actually were provided the officer’s name in case they wanted to do a typical witness background check. It’s the public who can’t know who he is. The government explained why in a war court filing that’s currently under seal.
Hunger strike origins
The new era seems to have started last year when Kelly became disenchanted with media coverage of the long-running hunger strike that captured not only headlines but the attention of the commander-in-chief.
In an August speech to Guantánamo troops, Kelly cast media reports of what goes on there as the product of an “agenda-driven chattering class” and “self-serving and misguided pundits” who ought to be “ashamed of themselves for reporting in the way they do.”
The hunger strike began in February. Detainee lawyers said the captives were protesting conditions at the camp. Kelly told Congress they were frustrated at their indefinite detention.
The military began issuing daily figures in March and by May, President Barack Obama was so moved by the mass protest that he renewed his efforts to close the prison.
The figures became a staple of daily news reports, which showed participation soar, and then drop once the military allowed protesting prisoners to leave their single cells to pray and eat together — so long as they nourished themselves enough to no longer require naso-gastric feedings.
Commanders disclosed hunger strike figures daily to show they had nothing to hide and that the protest wasn’t as broad as detainees claimed. But the military couldn’t control the narrative.
Defense lawyers criticized the count as too low. Medics bemoaned portrayals of what they did as inhumane, especially after the rapper Mos Def did a video dramatization of a Guantánamo forced-feeding that went viral.
Kelly, meanwhile, had differed publicly with the president’s description of what was going on in his prison. Obama called it forced-feeding; the general called it “ hunger-strike lite.” Ultimately, the hunger strike largely disappeared when the daily tally stopped. At the last report on Dec. 2, the count stood at 15. It peaked at 106 in June and went as low as 11 in November.
“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,” Filostrat said in a statement.
Left unexplained is whether or how nine months of daily disclosure may have harmed the troops’ “safety and security.”
“It has become a self-perpetuating story,” Southcom’s Julian said. Apparently unaware that the prison had disclosed hunger strike and force-feeding figures from the prison’s earliest days, he said, “these statistics were never reported before the recent mass protest.”
For years, in fact, the prison camp spokesman doled out any given day’s figure on request to demonstrate the double-barreled message that hunger striking was considered a peaceful act of protest, and that the prison has nothing to hide.
The new policy creates confusion. At the prison, Filostrat was presented an image from a recent CBS 60 Minutes report that showed a prison camp guard’s face. The commander suggested that the image would survive the new censorship regime.
“The guard in your screen shot is not identified and was not interviewed,” said Filostrat, who has oversight of the soldiers who serve as censors.
At Southcom, Julian’s interpretation was opposite. “Only the senior leaders and spokesman can be quoted by name and their images portrayed,” he said. “Others can be interviewed and faceless or unidentifiable images can be portrayed and they can be identified by rank and position.”