Hours after the White House objected to new limits on journalists’ access to the U.S. military’s detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the general who oversees the facility said he is reconsidering his rules and weighing a plan that might reinstate access.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, denied that he was trying to restrict reporters’ ability to cover the detention center despite reports that he had reduced reporters’ visits to just four times a year and only for a day each time.
“I’m not a `no' guy,” Kelly told McClatchy. “All of this is workable.”
Shortly before Kelly’s comments, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest distanced himself from Kelly’s plan, which was first reported in The New York Times.
“I think, in general, it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that we would be supportive of,” Earnest said.
Kelly told both The Times and Associated Press that the Detention Center Zone would be closed to journalists except for four days a year. He also said that reporters would not as a general rule be allowed within the actual prison walls, eliminating their ability to independently see prison conditions.
Coverage of the Guantánamo facility has been a contentious issue for years. Journalists have sparred with the military over access, what photos could be published and whether members of Guantánamo’s staff could be identified by name. In 2010, the Pentagon banned four reporters for life for publishing the name of a witness at a hearing whose identity was already publicly known. The Pentagon lifted the ban after two months of protest.
Kelly’s limits on reporter visits to the detention facility did not affect their access to the military commission courtroom, where Judge James L. Pohl, an Army colonel, has been hearing pretrial motions in the military commission case against Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The detention center is more than five miles from the courtroom in a different section of the sprawling Guantánamo Bay Naval Base called the Detention Center Zone, which is run by Joint Task Force Guantánamo, an authority that answers to the Southern Command. Kelly is scheduled to retire Jan. 14.
Eight reporters covered the most recent court hearing last week, they were not permitted to visit the prison or detainees. Pentagon rules have required that journalists who want to cover the detention facility do so on separate trips.
After reporters and others protested the new restrictions Thursday, Kelly said he was considering a change in which journalists covering the military commission hearings would be allowed to stay at the base an extra day in order to visit the prison.
“We’d offer members of the press who are already there the opportunity to stay one more day to go to the detention facility,” Kelly told McClatchy. “That seems more efficient.”
It has been more than two months since any reporter visited the military prison. The next tour is scheduled for February, but Southcom has said there will be no access inside the prisons on that trip.
For most of the period since the Guantánamo prison opened in January 2002, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, up to 20 journalists could see detainees on weeks when there were no military commission hearings.
Journalists, who typically arrived on a Monday and left on a Thursday, were not allowed to talk with the detainees, but they could view them and interview military staff members who worked in the detention center.
Kelly’s new rules would end those conversations as well.
“As it stands today, there is no opportunity for journalists to go inside the detention center or interview key military personnel about their duty there,” said Dave Wilson, a senior editor who has overseen the Miami Herald’s prize-winning coverage of Guantánamo. “The last journalists visited more than two months ago. So unless something changes, and soon, we’re looking at a long stretch of time without independent reporting.”
Kelly noted that any changes he makes could be altered by his successor. The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd to replace Kelly as the Southern Command leader starting Jan. 14.
“He will run the show,” Kelly said of Tidd. “As soon as he gets on board, he can do anything he wants as long as it’s within the law.”
Kelly said his decision had been prompted in part by the “abusive” behavior toward military personnel of a reporter who visited the naval base and the prison in October.
“The person was really out of line,” Kelly said. He declined to identify the journalist or the affiliated news organization, saying he did not “want to embarrass them.”
Kelly said there had been other episodes of rude behavior toward his men and women, some of them from unnamed lawyers who are defending the alleged 9/11 conspirators and other captives before military commissions.
About a month after the confrontation with the reporter in October, the Pentagon abruptly canceled a previously approved visit to the detention center by Carol Rosenberg, a Miami Herald reporter.
Kelly said that the cancellation of Rosenberg’s trip, for which she had purchased plane tickets, had nothing to do with her reporting.
“She’s a great reporter and a great person,” Kelly said.
McClatchy’s White House reporter Lesley Clark contributed to this report