The general in charge of U.S. prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has indefinitely ended journalists’ access to the prison that holds them. It’s an unprecedented step—and it comes amid reports that some detainees do not have access basic supplies, like clothing and shoes.
This isn’t just a matter of keeping journalists from doing their jobs. Over the years, reporters have been some of the only independent monitors of detainees’ treatment, as constrained as their role has always been at Guantanamo. While detainees have a right to counsel, because of various burdens imposed by the military, they have not all always had regular access to lawyers. And as a general rule, the International Red Cross does not make its observations of the prison public.
Which means the public can only find out through news accounts if the military is maintaining its own standards for prisoner treatment. And for at least two months, no journalists have seen the prisoners.
Lawyers who have visited the prison since journalists were last allowed there Oct. 9 said the captives’ clothing is faded, torn, or tattered, their shoes have holes, and they don’t have proper personal hygiene products. Some lawyers said they have to provide their clients clothing.
On Monday, the last remaining British national held there, Shakir Aamer, compared the prison to Harry Potter’s Azkaban, saying in his first television interview since his release that at the prison, “they suck all your feelings out of you.” In an interview with the UK’s Independent, the Saudi-born detainee, who was held for 14 years, also said he was repeatedly abused and tortured for information he did not have.
The inability of journalists to see the prisons is the latest example of reduced access to information about the detention facility—and the legal proceedings held there. In recent weeks, the Defense Department has released heavily redacted transcripts of open testimony and limited the photos and video releasable from the naval base. Defense Department officials have refused to say who decides what is kept from the public eye.
The military does not deny the charge, saying access to the prison is at the discretion of the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Marine Gen. John Kelly. (The Pentagon decides who goes to the court hearings.)
Privately, Defense Department officials fret that the opacity makes it look like the Obama administration is trying to hide something—just as officials are looking for facilities in the continental United States to house detainees and close Guantanamo Bay. It’s perhaps Obama’s most notably outstanding campaign promise, after all.
The White House reportedly rejected a Pentagon plan to build a new prison within the United States as too costly at $600 million. It costs roughly $400 million to maintain the facility each year.
“What worries us is we are looking at a period going on nearly six months that no independent journalists will have eyes on detainees or be able ask questions. That is unprecedented,” Miami Herald senior editor Dave Wilson, whose paper has led U.S. media coverage of the detention facility, told The Daily Beast.
Before the ban, journalists visiting the prison for the first time could get a tour of the facility in a way that the prisoners are not supposed to notice. But prisoners will often detect a change in the day-to-day routine and, at times, scream in hopes of being held by the outside world, as they did during a 2013 tour by 60 Minutes.
If the U.S. military approves, journalists can publish photos and video from the prison.
When it was established in 2002, the Pentagon has long stated that transparency is important to its Guantanamo Bay mission. The only caveat to that was “force protection”—guarding the safety of the facility and the troops inside. But in recent years, what constituted force protection has expanded. Journalists, for example, are banned from naming officials. Yet on the Defense Department’s internal news service, which is publicly available, their names and hometowns are listed.
Journalists are still allowed to travel to the naval base and cover hearings, upon approval from the Pentagon, and can see those few who have been charged, in the courtroom. But only 10 out of the 107 Guantanamo detainees have been charged. The rest have all but vanished from public view.