Anyone looking to catch a movie at the on-base theater at Fort Meade, Md., home of the National Security Agency, couldn’t watch the regularly scheduled Dolphin Tale screening on Wednesday. Instead, they got the beginning of a war crimes trial for the suspected U.S.S. Cole bomber, beamed live from Guantanamo Bay. It’s the beginning of a Defense Department experiment in transparency.
Only it wasn’t very transparent.
Reporters who packed in to the 80-seat theater, “Escort Required” badges dangling from our necks, got a confusing set of directions. On the one hand, the big screen showed a live, glitch-free feed from Guantanamo’s courtroom, clear as the CCTV feed shown to reporters at Gitmo’s media center. No one has ever watched a military commission from the continental U.S. At Meade, with our laptops and phones, we were encouraged to blog and tweet away. The doors of the theater were open to the public.
On the other hand, we were warned that if we waved our phones aloft, we might violate the ban on simultaneous audio or visual broadcasts. Photography was a no-no: the only imagery I could snap on the super-secret Meade was the shot you see below. There’s no wi-fi in the theater, so blogging and tweeting depended on the sad, solitary bar on my iPhone catching Verizon 3G — but if I got caught using my phone, I might be kicked out. (It’s unclear!)
Having reported from Guantanamo Bay, where ludicrous restrictions on journalists are routine, I want badly to pat the Defense Department on the back for broadcasting Gitmo proceedings back to the United States. Covering them meant driving an hour, not losing four days of my life, much professional liberty and several hundred dollars for a Gitmo trek. But the charitable interpretation is there are a lot of kinks to work out before Gitmo Movie Night is, as Defense Department spokesman David Oten put it, “a very open session.”
Depending on what you think of the military commissions, broadcasting them back into the U.S. is either a step for openness or a cynical attempt to sex up a travesty of justice. Either way, the fact is that western justice is based on open courts. Guantanamo Bay is many things. It is not a place of openness.
Want to see a military commission? Before Wednesday, you’d have to submit your request to the Defense Department, where multiple offices — the military task force running the detention center, the Office of Military Commissions, Pentagon public affairs — will think about it. If they approve, you’ll be asked to report to Andrews Air Force Base to be flown out on a repurposed civilian jet, for $400. At Gitmo you can’t go anywhere without a military escort. Landline internet access is another $100 per week. Do not even think about taking anything electronic into a courtroom. You can’t even bring a pen in now, after someone tried to walk in with an autopen. Anyone who wants to leave has two choices: Either wait for a military flight or violate the rules, ensuring you’ll never return.
This embarrasses the Pentagon, which invented the military commissions and the rules for Gitmo on the fly after 9/11. It’s an argument against the commissions: how can they provide the same standards of justice as civilian trials when everyone, even the victims’ families, has a hard time observing them? So the Pentagon changed the game.
Meade is an odd choice to host a public hearing. It’s one of the military’s most secretive bases. Defense officials explain that they thought beaming into the Pentagon was too disruptive but they wanted the broadcasts near Washington. Judge Col. James L. Pohl, wanted the Pentagon to ensure the public really did have open access to Meade before he authorized all the hearings broadcasted there.
It shows how the military is still improving rules for the commissions. There weren’t any technical glitches with the feed: the 40-second delay set up to protect classified information wasn’t obtrusive. Some of glitches were practical, like the dearth of internet access in the theater. My Verizon aircard didn’t work there, although some of my colleagues’ did. Through the hashtag #nashiri, reporters at Meade and Gitmo swapped info when they managed to tweet..
Most of the glitches were policy ones. The public didn’t have much time to reach Meade. The Pentagon only announced the public welcome to Meade the day before. Accordingly, no one from the general public attended.
If they had, they might have seen some legal fireworks. Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri didn’t enter a plea at his arraignment. His lawyers demanded the government publicly acknowledge that even if he’s acquitted in his capitol case, it claims the right to keep detaining him until the nebulous date when the “war on terror” ends. (The Pentagon’s top lawyer made that claim in 2009.) Later, Gitmo’s top attorney testified that the intelligence shop there has read the mail of Nashiri’s lawyers, which is supposed to be sacrosanct.
Oten and the Pentagon concede it’s all a work in progress. They’ll have time to adjust: Nashiri’s trial won’t start until next year, and it’s unclear if the next commission will happen sooner. But if they really open the commissions, the show on display will be much more important than any dolphin movie.
Photos: Flickr/Jeshua Nace; Spencer Ackerman