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GITMO procedures challenge military 'transparency'

| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, 12:03 p.m.
The press kit that is handed out to media members touring Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities along with the media ground rules.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
The press kit that is handed out to media members touring Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities along with the media ground rules.

The Department of Defense presents the opportunity for journalists to visit the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of the military's efforts at transparency.

Media companies pay to get their journalists to Miami, then the military flies them free to the base known as Gitmo.

My visit there with a half dozen or so other journalists last month was quick, a little more than 24 hours on the island. Our itinerary was planned to the minute. But before we even left our home cities, we had to sign a 13-page Defense Department document called “Media Ground Rules.” Among the rules: no verbal, written or other communication with detainees there; and no attributed interviews or identifying images with enlisted personnel lower than a 1st sergeant or officers lower than a lieutenant colonel.

For me, that latter rule meant no interviews or photos of members of the New Kensington-based military police unit which has been assigned to guard duty at Guantanamo for the past three months.

As a photojournalist, the rules also meant that I could not take any pictures that showed the full frontal faces of detainees and no three-quarter side view of detainees' faces.

For the last 15 years, I've covered many assignments related to the war on terror. I've watched countless flags folded above caskets, I've listened to the painful hum of taps rolling across graveyards, the jolting blasts of 21-gun-salutes. I've walked alongside soldiers. I've told their stories with my camera, across the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq and from bases all across the United States. I've seen combat and the pain of death. I've seen a lot in my career as a photojournalist; I've grown to know these wars.

Guantanamo Bay has always been a source of curiosity for me. I had passed through the Guantanamo Naval base once before en route to Haiti where I covered the devastating earthquake there in 2010, which only piqued my interest. I wanted to know more and wanted to see more, so off I went.

Upon landing, we quickly went to work. Our tour began with an operations security brief which basically reiterated the list of things we couldn't do or photograph that were in the 13-page media ground rules packet. Members of the public affairs office at Joint Task Force Guantanamo handed us a press packet with its motto: “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent.”

The transparency includes rules that all photos and videos are subject to a review before they can leave the base. Any individual photos that are deemed to violate the rules are deleted. Any videos containing footage that violates the rules are deleted in their entirety unless the questionable footage can be edited out. Media disputing the decisions can appeal.

Journalists also can not take their cellphones when going to Camps 5 and 6 at Gitmo, where the majority of detainees are kept, so that it is not possible to take pictures or audio interviews and immediately send the materials off base without first going through the vetting process.

Immediately after our briefing, we found ourselves at the sally port that led into Camps 5 and 6. Inside, we were given a tour and met with some of the command staff.

As a photojournalist, I wanted to see the detainees. We left the interview and the five of us on the media tour were escorted by the public affairs officers to a darkened corridor outside of the cellblocks. We stood with the guards, peering into the communal areas where the detainees were. With hushed voices, the guards warned us to make sure any lights we had on our cameras were off or taped over. The detainees did not know we were there photographing them.

I pressed my lens up to the one-way-glass and shot through it and past the fencing of the sally port that led into the block. The detainees were praying. Shortly afterwards, we were whisked away to continue on with the tour.

In the following hours we visited Camp 5, Camp Echo, the library inside of Camp Delta, and the medical clinic. By the day's end, our heads were spinning with all the information we gathered and questions left unanswered. The public affairs officers took us all to O'Kelly's Irish Pub on the Naval base side of the island for dinner. Our conversations continued as we enjoyed our meal. We spoke about the tour thus far and shared our thoughts about what would benefit future tours. We talked about the Presidential election, the future of the detention facility and the possible transfer of more of the detainees.

One officer mentioned that ‘there's always something going on' at the base. He uttered something indicating that things were even going on that day. When pressed by one of the other journalists about what he meant, he awkwardly changed the conversation.

The next morning we were up well before first light. We went back to Camp Delta to photograph the sunrise, had breakfast at Camp America, and had a little over a half-hour interview with the U.S. Navy Admiral in charge of all of Joint Task Force Guantanamo. Immediately after, we were transported across the bay to the leeward side of the island, put on a small plane, and flown back to Miami.

After I arrived back in Pittsburgh, I was laying in bed when my phone chimed with an email alert. It was from another journalist who was on the media tour of GITMO.

“So this was what was ‘going on' at the camps while we were there,” said the email, which included a link. I clicked on the link and began reading a story as my fiancé Stephanie, who was listening to the BBC on the radio in the other room, yelled: “Are you hearing this?”

The BBC reported that during our last night at Gitmo, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane took 15 detainees from Guantanamo to the United Arab Emirates and handed them over. It was the largest transfer of detainees under the Obama administration.

It's hard to say when this happened, perhaps as I ate my Cuban sandwich at O'Kelley's or maybe as I lay in my bed asleep that night.

But there I was, on the edge of history, and I didn't have the slightest clue — none of the journalists visiting there did. Even the day after, no one from the military made mention of the transfer to us.

I asked the media minders at Guantanamo for comment on what happened. A military spokesman said they do not comment on detainee transfers.

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