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Covering Gitmo

Carol J. Williams is the Caribbean bureau chief for The Times.

IN THE BEST of times, covering Guantanamo means wrangling with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with logistics so nonsensical that they turn two hours of reporting into an 18-hour day, with hostile escorts who seem to think you’re in league with Al Qaeda, and with the dispiriting reality that you’re sure to encounter more iguanas than war-on-terror suspects.

In the worst of times -- this past week, for example -- those quotidian discomforts can be compounded by an invasion of mating crabs skittering into your dormitory, a Pentagon power play that muzzles already reluctant sources and an unceremonious expulsion to Miami on a military plane, safety-belted onto whatever seat is available. In this case, that seat was the toilet.

I ended up on that plane, on that seat, because of a baffling move by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office, in which the only three newspaper reporters who managed to surmount Pentagon obstacles to covering the first deaths at Guantanamo were ordered off the base Wednesday. Rumsfeld’s office said the decision was made “to be fair and impartial” to the rest of the media, which the government had refused to let in.

Rumsfeld’s gatekeepers have long made clear that they view outside scrutiny of the detention operations as a danger to the Bush administration’s secretive and often criticized campaign to indefinitely detain “enemy combatants.” But this time, their actions seemed counterproductive because booting out the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and Charlotte (N.C.) Observer only provoked fresh demands to learn what the government is hiding.

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Those of us cleared to cover the prison and war-crimes tribunal learned long ago that there will be a hard-fought battle for every factlet. When unexpected news breaks, like the suicides, the Pentagon’s knee-jerk reflex to thwart coverage reminds me of how Communist officials used to organize Cold War-era propaganda trips for Moscow correspondents but then pull the plug when embarrassing realities intruded.

“You ask a lot of questions!” said Emily Witt, a 25-year-old first-timer from Miami’s alternative weekly New Times, when she observed my scattershot strategy for interrogating officials during a rare “inside the wire” tour of the prison camps last month.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors’ preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander -- who for security reasons can’t be identified -- elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding. During an interview last month with the new detention center commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., we queried him on plans for handling detainee deaths -- a theoretical exercise until two Saudis and a Yemeni hung themselves June 10.

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I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

“Only during the mass-hanging incident,” the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec -- operational security -- watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

But such revelations are infrequent, and the investment of time to obtain them is grossly disproportionate. On a typical day at Guantanamo, reporters rise at dawn, head for breakfast in a mess hall at 6 a.m., then at 7 a.m. cross the often storm-tossed bay to the main naval base in small boats, clutching our laptop bags and life preservers as waves crash over the bow and drench us.

We make the return crossing at around 9 p.m., after hours in the bowls of military alphabet soup, writing our stories in JIBs -- joint information bureaus that are simple rooms with folding chairs, tables and telephones -- while we cover OMC or JTF (the Office of Military Commissions that runs the tribunals and the Joint Task Force that oversees the prison). Back at the CBQ -- the combined bachelors’ quarters -- we sleep in a dorm-like complex on the virtually abandoned leeward side of Guantanamo Bay that this month suffered an invasion of crabs the size of your head, coupled and clattering across the floors, halls and sidewalks. Their leggy orange spawn slithered under doors and divebombed us from the ceiling.

Despite the shroud of secrecy and the at-times surrealistic backdrop, it is the rare glimpse into the war-on-terror workings that make assignments at Guantanamo a source of professional satisfaction.

Under ground rules we must agree to if we want access to the base, journalists may not have any contact with detainees, who are removed from sight at all but one camp during media tours. Only at the compound for the most compliant prisoners can we even make eye contact.

That’s why coverage of the tribunal sessions have been so important in putting a human face on the prisoners, whose names and nationalities were only disclosed in March under a court order following an Associated Press legal challenge.

Court appearances by the 10 men charged with war crimes have offered us our first meaningful independent view of detainees in the prison’s 4 1/2 years. Some seem to be committed holy warriors whose detention has only fueled their hatred of Americans. Others contend that they are innocent of any attack on U.S. forces, just unfortunates swept up in the post-9/11 fervor.

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Meanwhile, 450 others have been held for years without charges or legal recourse. Their indefinite detention to keep them off the global terrorism battlefields feels like a Muslim version of the World War II Japanese American internment.

It is the opportunity to shed light into the dark corners of the antiterrorism campaign that inspires us to surmount the obstacles and obfuscations. And it is the thwarting of that mission with moves like our expulsion that make us all the more determined to question, probe and illuminate the actions of our government being waged in the country’s name.


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