It's hard to be a reporter at Guantánamo because when you ask to read an unclassified motion, see the judge's scheduling order that's been sent out in a mass e-mail, find out who testified under subpoena, get a copy of a video already leaked to "60 Minutes" the answer is "no" — because those are the rules.
Earlier this month, I covered a really crucial crossroads hearing for Omar Khadr, a Canadian who's been held at Guantánamo since he was 16. He fired his legal team, revealed a secret government offer of a plea deal, announced a boycott but then said that maybe, after a third of his life at Guantánamo, he'd like to function as his own lawyer. It's a week later and they still won't release a copy of the motion that was argued.
I've covered Supreme Court arguments and murder and mayhem trials in Massachusetts Superior Court. I've reported spy cases, done gavel to gavel of a court martial. This is a court like none other I've ever seen.
You can't get up in the morning and stand on line to cover it. You can't bring a lawyer to protest if there's a closure. The public and the press have no standing. Increasingly, you can't read the motions in advance. You can't ask the lawyers during a break to clarify something. You can't go home at night. You can't check into a hotel.
There's a court security officer, a nice guy, a contractor paid by the Pentagon. He tells the sketch artist in the court room whose nose and eyes she can sketch. If something "protected" slips out in court, it's his job to send word to the writers: You can't print it.
When the sketch artist, Janet Hamlin, drew the first public image of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, after years in CIA custody, she dutifully showed it to the security officer.
He takes it to KSM, who studies it and sends Janet a message: Find my FBI photo and fix it. My nose is too big. You see, at Guantánamo, even an alleged terrorist gets to be a censor.
When the topic comes up in court of what psychotropic drugs were given another accused 9/11 conspirator, Ramzi bin al Shibh, the courtroom censor hits a white noise button so reporters viewing from a glass booth can't hear the names of the drugs. Why? One minder said it's because Ramzi bin al Shibh has HIPAA health privacy rights. In a place where they still argue that the Constitution doesn't apply.
Guantánamo is a place where you get assigned seats in court, and if you're me you usually get one of the two or three seats that can't see the witness stand. Even if the media gallery is mostly empty.
It wasn't always that way. When the court opened in the summer of 2004, reporters were VIPs, afforded seats front and center — and during breaks the lawyers would lean over the bar and explain, amplify. We stayed in guest quarters.
Now, in court, according to the ground rules, you can't talk to the lawyers, even during breaks. Even if they want to be quoted.
It's a place where for years a public affairs officer would scrupulously provide the number of captives being force-fed. This summer, it stopped. We never give out those figures, they said. I protest. I ask again earlier this month. How many of the 180 are being tube fed? Answer: About half of less than 10. Huh?