MIAMI (AP) — New limits are being imposed on media access to the detention center at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the commander of the military's Southern Command said Thursday, outlining rules that will limit what journalists can see and how often they can visit the already highly restricted site.
Journalists will be allowed to visit the center on tours that will be organized once per quarter, lasting no more than a day, and they will no longer be able to visit inside the two detention center camps where a majority of the 107 current prisoners are held, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Kelly said the main reason for the change was that media tours were straining the detention center staff, which has been dealing with an increasing number of visits by members of Congress and foreign delegations from countries where prisoners may be resettled as part of an effort to reduce the prison population.
"We really did have to get some organization to what was going on down there," said the general, whose tenure overseeing U.S. military operations throughout the Southern Hemisphere will come to an end Jan. 14.
There are other factors behind the changes. Kelly said he has grown increasingly frustrated with members of the news media who seek to question officials at Guantanamo about President Barack Obama's thwarted effort to close the detention center, an issue that members of the military are not authorized to discuss.
He was also prompted to act because a journalist he declined to identify had been "very abusive" to a member of the detention center staff during an interview in October "We had kind of what we would term an ugly incident," Kelly said, declining to provide details about the event.
Kelly said journalists will still be allowed to interview officials such as the prison commander, the Muslim cultural adviser and senior medical officer. There will be no interviews with guards or the staff who run day-to-day operations inside the camps. The entire trip will last a day, on a flight arranged by Southern Command either from Florida or the Washington area.
There will no longer be "routine" access to the inside of the camps, though Kelly said he might consider it under certain circumstances for journalists who have never seen it before.
David Wilson, a senior editor at The Miami Herald, which covers the detention center extensively, said repeated visits by experienced journalists is critical to observe changes over time and to provide context and they have been unable to do that in recent months as the military has reviewed its media policy.
"The bigger issue in my mind is we are looking at at least four months and now indefinitely where there will have been no independent journalists who have been inside the prisons, who will have had any opportunity to lay eyes on the detainees or ask any relevant questions to the officers in charge," Wilson said.
None of the changes will apply to journalists who come to Guantanamo to cover war crimes proceedings such as those for the five men charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Those men are held in Camp 7, a supermax-like facility that houses 14 prisoners that no journalist has ever been allowed to see.
Members of the news media have been visiting Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002 to hold suspected members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. That continued as the detention center evolved from little more than a collection of outdoor cages baking in the Cuban sun to a modern prison complex. That access has always come with extreme limitations. Journalists have been required to sign thick packets of ground rules, subject photos and video to security screening before either can be published and accept that many questions will go unanswered.
Still, journalists have been able to arrange visits to interview officials at the detention center with relative ease throughout the year. Tours would last about four days, with journalists being able to see the inside of the main camps and the cells in which men are being held. Interviews with detainees have never been allowed, but the media could see the men and sometimes hear them, gaining insight into captivity that has now reached nearly 14 years for most of those held there.
So far this year, the detention center has received visits by 40 journalists representing 22 organizations, officials said.
In recent years, the military has become much more restrictive with information from Guantanamo. Statistics that were once routinely released, such as the number of assaults by prisoners on guards, are now withheld. In December 2013, officials stopped disclosing the number of men on hunger strike or being tube fed.
Kelly said he stopped releasing the information because he felt prisoners were eating just enough to qualify as a hunger striker without endangering their health in any way and creating a false impression that more people were taking part in the protest. "It serves to manipulate public opinion but it tells me nothing," he said of the information.