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US military unveils a leaner media visit to Guantanamo

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: February 29, 2016

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Tribune News Service) — J.J. Abrams’ CBS series “Alias” may have been the critically acclaimed hit that helped catapult Jennifer Garner if not Bradley Cooper to stardom. But it’s too violent for the last 91 war-on-terror captives here, most of whom were behind barbed wire for the run of the series.

An Army captain currently in charge of the prison’s program to distract and engage the detainees said it didn’t pass a taste test that rejects radical jihadist themes, graphic violence or nudity in deciding what can be added to the 35,000-item collection of books, magazines, games and DVDs.

“We don’t really ban items here,” said the officer, who did not provide his name. Instead, he called it a “screening process” that only accepts an item “if it meets our criteria.” Broadly that means material containing “positive themes and messages.”

Also recently rejected, according to the detention center: a DVD of “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon because it contained nudity and David Baldacci’s New York Times best seller “Zero Day” as supposedly containing anti-American extremism. It’s a thriller whose central character is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division, according to the book’s promotional literature.

In years past the military let media speak with the contractors who actually handle circulation. They know what’s coming, what’s popular at the moment and what’s not.

The captain comes across as a really nice guy, who advises his staff no longer has a budget for acquisitions. Instead, it relies on donations from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the soldiers’ morale program. Accepted donations recently arrived in Russian.

The library was an approved stop on a new, leaner basic tour of the Detention Center Zone this month that lifted a four-month blackout on news media visiting altogether.

The prison spokesman has compressed what were once four- or five-day reporting trips into a morning and part of the afternoon at the sprawling section of the base that contains the last 91 detainees run by 2,000 troops and civilian staff members. This latest opportunity arrived on a Monday evening and departed Tuesday, after censors scrubbed journalists’ photos and videos at the airstrip.

Gone are opportunities to interview guards, meet with mental health professionals, to taste a detainee meal and to compare life in maximum-security detention for those who misbehave to those in communal captivity and get many more privileges.

Reporters heard there was a detainee garden, but unlike years ago, didn’t get to see it. Reporters heard only from management, who emphasized the good works of the guards and other junior enlisted among the 1,700-strong troops. But none were approved to do interviews.

One of the first things cast off from the visit was the first place captives were kept, the now weed-filled first prison camp, X-Ray, where a Navy photographer captured 20 captives on their knees in orange jumpsuits in what has become Guantanamo’s most iconic photo.

Camp X-Ray was for years a popular, approved stop on the weeklong visit, designed to demonstrate that those conditions no longer exist — and popular with news photographers for dawn and dusk imagery of the banana rat-infested ruins of Guantanamo’s early days, now kept intact by federal court order. Troops escorting media on base liked to take reporters there, too, in part because there’s nearly nothing needing censorship in the pictures. Except, in recent years, the soldiers’ faces.

Also missing on the visit was any chance to photograph another icon of the prison that opened in early 2002 — a restraint chair used to tube-feed detainees on hunger strike.

It’s used at Camp 5, the maximum-security, 100-cell lockup that once was also a favorite spot to illustrate the evolution from open-air to cement-block air-conditioned captivity. Instead, reporters were taken to the so-called communal camp — another cement-block, air-conditioned prison building where cooperative captives live. It was getting a new roof, according to the chief of the guard force, Army Col. David Heath, because the old one leaked after nine years on the seafront compound.

The “librarian,” as the captain in charge of detainee diversion programs is described on the tour, also briefed about “detainee seminars,” once called classes. They range from one-on-one instruction to small groups of captives taught by culturally appropriate contractors, meaning Arabic speakers, who have spent years at Guantanamo.

The Life Skills class lets captives design a resume, learn computer skills and, in one instance, complete a PhotoShop class that landed him a certificate of achievement.

©2016 Miami Herald
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

In an August, 2012 file photo, an Army MP speaks to reporters on a tour of U.S. Navy base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
WALTER MICHOT, MIAMI HERALD/TNS

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