Guantánamo’s forever captives to make pitch for freedom in secret

The Pentagon has begun notifying would-be observers that it plans to hold the first session of the long-awaited parole-style boards at Guantánamo in secret.

President Barack Obama ordered his administration to set up the so-called Periodic Review Boards March 7, 2011. In July, Defense Department officials said the boards would review the files of 71 Guantánamo prisoners’ cases — 46 so-called “indefinite detainees” and 25 men once considered candidates for war crimes trials.

Now, as the administration is poised to hold the first hearing — on Nov. 20 at Guantánamo, with 33-year-old captive Mahmud al Mujahid’s plea for release — the Pentagon says it’s unprepared to let reporters watch.

The hearings are an updated version of the Bush-era Administrative Review Boards that evaluated not whether a captive met the White House definition of a Guantánamo war prisoner but if it was time to let him go. The International Red Cross has pressed the Obama administration to get them going for years, arguing that a war prisoner has a right to review under the Geneva Conventions, and the lack of a process fed frustration in the camps during this year’s long hunger strike.

Mysteriously, the Pentagon’s deputy director of detainee affairs, Alan Liotta, framed the coming closed hearings as a time-crunch issue in a Nov. 4 letter to the Human Rights Watch counterterrorism counsel, Andrea Prasow.

On the one hand the Pentagon “is committed to beginning the PRB process as expeditiously and transparently as possible,” Liotta wrote of the process Obama ordered.

But the Defense Department was still devising “procedures for granting press access to certain unclassified portions of the PRB hearings.” Liotta did not elaborate.

Military sources said that Liotta’s boss, the new Pentagon envoy for Guantanamo closure, Paul Lewis, was surprised to discover during a prison camp visit on Nov. 5 that detention center staff had no plans to accommodate the media for the hearings – a cornerstone of Obama’s strategy for moving forward. Lewis started the job Nov. 1.

Officials have not been able to explain why the Pentagon is unprepared to fulfill its transparency pledge. First Amendment attorney Dave Schulz said he had been seeking assurances from the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel that reporters would be able to watch captives argue for their freedom since soon after the Pentagon published its 23-page PRB procedures in May 2012.

Observers were allowed to watch, but not talk, during the unclassified hearings of similar panels held during the Bush administration — called Combatant Status Review Tribunals and Administration Review Boards at Guantánamo and Detainee Review Boards at Bagram in Afghanistan. During those hearings, reporters got to listen while detainees challenged the military’s reasons for holding them..

Liotta gave no explanation for why the Pentagon couldn’t provide the same access for the first hearings, and likewise gave no timetable for any type of transparency. He wrote Nov. 4 that the Pentagon would at some point set up a PRB website to disclose “a declassified transcript of the detainee’s statement” — suggesting the military was treating a captive’s plea for release as secret until intelligence agents scrubbed them of information the administration does not want the public to know.

It was unclear why the Pentagon was launching its process with Mujahid, a Yemeni man who is listed as one of Guantánamo’s 46 indefinite detainees.

Leaked documents show he was brought to the prison in Cuba on suspicion he was one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards on the day it opened, meaning he’s among the 20 men photographed kneeling in a cage in Guantánamo’s most iconic and enduring images.

Under the process Obama set up by Executive Order 13567 nearly three years ago, panel members will watch Mujahid and his attorney argue for his release by a closed-circuit video feed. They’ll be at a secret location somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area and act as representatives of the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, Homeland Security and National Intelligence Directorate.

At the prison, Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat said Friday that 11prisoners remained on the hunger strike that peaked in June with 106 of the then-166 captives refusing to eat — 44 of them at the time designated by the prison to get restraint-chair forced-feedings if they resisted medical orders.

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