Censorship and Kangaroo Courts: Alive and Well in Obama Administration

By Kenneth J. Theisen

As I have reported here before the Obama administration is using kangaroo courts known as military tribunals at the Guantánamo military base. 
 
These “legal” proceedings have proven to be an embarrassment to the administration and in its latest move it is trying to silence the media in its reports from Gitmo.
 
The Pentagon has banned four reporters from future Guantánamo Military Commissions’ proceedings for reporting the name of a witness in the pre-trial hearings of Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr. At these hearings even the government’s own witnesses have revealed some of the abuse that Omar has been subjected to in his years of incarceration in U.S. hellholes.

The identity of the witness had already been disclosed in previous news reports and an on-the-record interview he gave in 2008 to the media. The four reporters that are subject to the ban are Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of the Globe and Mail and Steven Edwards of CanWest.

 
Several rights groups are protesting the ban and have sent a letter of protest to the Pentagon. In the letter signed by the ACLU, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and National Institute of Military Justice they write that "this move by the Department of Defense not only runs counter to the U.S. administration's stated commitment to transparency in government, but will also bring the military commissions into further disrepute, internationally and within the United States."
 
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer had this to say about the Pentagon move, “That reporters are being punished for disclosing information that has been publicly available for years is nothing short of absurd – any gag order that covers this kind of information is not just overbroad but nonsensical. Plainly, no legitimate government interest is served by suppressing information that is already well known. We strongly urge the Defense Department to reconsider its rash, draconian and unconstitutional decision to bar these four reporters from future tribunals. If allowed to stand, this decision will discourage legitimate reporting and add yet another entry to the long list of reasons why the military commissions ought to be shut down for good.”
 
But transparency in government was only a campaign slogan for Obama. Since taking office his administration has been anything but transparent. Obama administration lawyers have gone to court repeatedly to cover up murders, torture, rendition, massive surveillance, and other crimes of the Bush regime, as well as crimes committed by U.S. officials since Bush left office. It has gone out of its way to deny due process to prisoners of the U.S. war of terror for fear that trials and other legal proceedings would reveal too much of the criminal activity of the government. This banning of reporters is consistent with these other actions to keep the people from knowing what the government is doing in our names. It and other moves to censor information must be exposed and opposed.



The full text of the letter sent by the rights’ groups is below:
 
Col. David Lapan
Director, Press Operations
1400 Defense Pentagon
Room 2E961
Washington, DC 20301-1400
May 12, 2010

Dear Colonel Lapan,

We are writing to express our serious concern about the Defense Department's decision to ban four journalists - from The Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and CanWest Newspapers of Canada - from covering future military commission proceedings at Guantánamo Bay on the grounds that they had revealed the name of a witness in violation of rules governing media reporting of the commissions.

We consider that this move by the Department of Defense not only runs counter to the U.S. administration's stated commitment to transparency in government, but will also bring the military commissions into further disrepute, internationally and within the United States.

As you know, the witness who appeared in Omar Khadr's pre-trial hearing, identified by the prosecution as "Interrogator No. 1," had previously been the subject of a widely publicized military court-martial in 2005 that resulted in his conviction for detainee abuse committed at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in 2002. His connection to the Khadr case had also previously been revealed from information he himself gave in an on-the-record interview to a reporter at the Toronto Star. That reporter, Michelle Shephard, who wrote a book about Omar Khadr, is now one of those being banned from future commission hearings simply for reporting the same information that had previously been widely published and disseminated.

Whatever confidence the public in the United States and around the world may maintain in these proceedings can only be eroded by a move that is perceived as being motivated by a clampdown on informed media reporting rather than the protection of classified or confidential information.

Because the proceedings are based at Guantánamo and are open only to a select number of journalists, military personnel and NGO observers, continuing access to these proceedings by knowledgeable and experienced reporters - such as the four here - is even more important than it would be in an ordinary federal trial, open to the general public.

We urge the Department of Defense to reconsider what we believe is an ill-advised decision to exclude these reporters.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International
American Civil Liberties Union
National Institute of Military Justice

cc: Douglas Wilson, Asst. Sec. of Defense for Public Affairs
Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations
Vice Adm. Bruce McDonald, Convening Authority, Military Commissions
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