Notes From Guantanamo Bay

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Reporting from the military's Guantanamo Bay base can be a challenge. The amenities aren't great and security is tighter than at United States military installations in Iraq.


NPR's John McChesney recently spent nearly three weeks covering the first war crimes commission trial at Guantanamo and has this Reporter's Notebook.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: This was my first visit to Guantanamo. I was there to cover the trial of Salim Hamdan, one of Osama Bin Laden's drivers. I immediately ran into the fractious relations between the media working at Guantanamo and Pentagon representatives there.

It started with a military flight for most of the media, which arrived a day and a half after Hamdan's trial began. Yes, it is a public trial, but we can't schedule flights for the media's convenience, I was told. The morning after I arrived, journalists and the military had a meeting to air a variety of complaints. There was unhappiness about unemptied port-a-potties outside the press room, reeking from tropical heat, the soggy tents we slept in, latrines not being cleaned, and so on.

But the hottest issue causing tempers to flare was the inability to move about the base without a military minder at our elbow at all times. We were a couple of miles from dining facilities and the Base Exchange where we could buy necessities, but we couldn't use the bay shuttle or taxis. Civilian contractors from other nations had much more freedom of movement than we did. A remark that I had been on dangerous bases in Iraq without such tight oversight.

Navy commander J. D. Gordon from the Pentagon reminded me that there were dangerous men imprisoned on this base. Voices were raised. The meeting ended with many reporters feeling that they were being treated as enemies of the state. That might have been the end of it, you know, cranky journalists up against a rigid but immovable application of rules, but phone calls then went out from the military to several news organizations complaining about the behavior of their reporters.

Commander Gordon later told me he felt some of the reporters at that meeting were out of control. Then came the announcement that a crew of freelancers for "This American Life" were being expelled because fellow journalists were complaining about them. Kirsten Johnson is a member of that crew.

Ms. KIRSTEN JOHNSON (Journalist, "This American Life"): We were shocked because we'd already invested, you know, several weeks of time in the Hamdan trial and obviously wanted to see what the outcome was going to be, but we weren't sure there was any recourse for us.

MCCHENEY: The next day, a petition signed by fellow journalists opposed that expulsion. "This American Life" was allowed to stay. I should add that the enlisted public affairs personnel assigned to drive us around and watch over us were unbelievably helpful. It was a little like hurting cats and they did it with grace, but many made it clear they thought command was entirely too uptight about our presence.

SIMON: NPR's John McChesney.

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