The watchwords of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to judge from its website, include a commitment to be transparent, as well as safe, humane and legal. No one would claim that the remote island prison has been a paragon of openness, but now a departing general has ordered a change in the rules that mocks the very idea of transparency.
Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly is slated to retire next month, but on the way out he has imposed new restrictions on media access to the site, further limiting what is already a narrow glimpse of the world’s most controversial prison.
Until October, reporters could apply for a four-day visit to the base that offered an escorted military tour of the detention center and interviews with troops and key prison officials. The process, to be sure, was hardly ideal. Guidelines for visiting journalists were often arbitrarily interpreted, depending on the escort. Interviews rarely revealed much. Yet this was the only way for the world outside to get any idea of what was going on at the prison, or parts of it. One camp housing secret prisoners has always been, and remains, off limits to journalists, and even to many official visitors.
Even so, this limited access was apparently too much for Gen. Kelly, who disclosed in an interview that the Detention Center Zone will be closed to reporters except for four times a year, for tours lasting no more than a day. On those day trips, the reporters will no longer be allowed inside the two major prison buildings where a majority of the 107 current prisoners are held.
This decision to dismantle the rules of media access that have prevailed for more than a decade represents an arbitrary and unjustifiable departure in the commitment to transparency made by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Gen. Kelly said the main reason for the abrupt change was that media tours were straining the detention center staff, which also deals with visiting delegations from members of Congress and foreign officials from countries where prisoners may be resettled. He also said he was prompted to act by an incident in which a reporter (whom he refused to identify) was “very abusive” to a member of the detention center staff during an interview in October.
This is a flimsy pretext. Reporters who demonstrably misbehave should be barred. But why exclude the world’s press to punish just one individual? And if there are stresses on the staff, the details should be made public so that a justified increase in staff funding can be considered.
Gen. Kelly also said he was frustrated with reporters who asked questions about President Obama’s thwarted efforts to close Gitmo, which members of the military can’t discuss. Really? Just say “No comment” and get over it. It’s hardly a substantial reason to impose a 361-day-per-year news blackout.
Ironically, Gen. Kelly seems to be working at cross purposes with President Obama, who has repeatedly stressed that he wants to shut the place down because its isolation adds to the myth of Guantánamo as the prison of horrors. But making it harder for reporters to visit adds to the myth. It plays into the hands of recruiters for jihad.
Next month, Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd becomes the new leader of the Southern Command. He should make restoring the old rules of media access a top priority and thus ensure that the Pentagon’s professed commitment to transparency is more than just an empty promise.