Pentagon launches new Guantanamo commission website

Kirsten Berg | Newsgathering | Feature | September 30, 2011

In an effort to address calls for transparency in the trials of accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, the Department of Defense launched a new website that aims to provide the public up-to-date information concerning the military proceedings.

Journalists have been pushing for the new website — which features reporter tools such as background and historical information about the military commissions, news updates, and information about the on-site Camp Justice media operations — as part of a series of requests for greater and easier accessibility to important information about the Guantanamo-based trials, according to Defense Department spokesperson Dave Oten.

Arguably the most significant feature of the website, however, is a page that allows visitors to download copies of the court filings from each the military commission’s cases against suspected terrorists. The idea, said Oten, was to create one place where everything about a particular case can be found, a tool reporters specifically requested because of the difficulty obtaining the documents in the past.

The Pentagon inaugurated the feature Wednesday by announcing and posting the charges against a Saudi man who faces the death penalty for allegedly orchestrating the USS Cole Bombing in 2000. The military has referred charges against the accused terrorist, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, to a military commission, and he is expected to be formally indicted within a month, marking the start of the first full military commission trial of the president’s term.

The Nashiri case will likely be the first critical test for the administration’s continued pledges to increase transparency in the controversial offshore commissions after a rocky past with reporters. Since the trials began under the Bush administration and continued under Obama, news organizations have taken issue with what they say is an unnecessary degree of secrecy that made reporting on the proceedings incredibly difficult.

In 2010, for example, the Pentagon made a controversial and since-reversed decision to ban several journalists from Guantanamo for allegedly publishing "protected" information that was discussed during a hearing, even though it was already publicly known. Reporters have also complained prosecutors would discuss court documents during the trials that had not been made available to the press, a grievance the new website attempts to address.

On that front, the website has received mixed reactions. Carol Rosenberg, reporting for The Miami Herald Wednesday, wrote that it was unclear whether the website would “prove to be as complete as news reporters had hoped.”

She noted, for example, that the Nashiri page only contained the prosecution's documents against the accused terrorist. “Conspicuously missing,” she wrote, was a defense filing claiming that the case against him was flawed because of the delays with the trial and the CIA’s alleged use of torture against him. Rosenberg covered the Guantanamo trials for the Herald and was one of the reporters who was temporarily banned from the proceedings.

Defense Department spokesperson Oten said that the defense filing will not be added to the website because it is considered an internal correspondence between the defense and prosecution, which is not a publicly released document.

Oten did say, however, that the website includes --- and will continue to include --- a timely provision of court documents, a “good solid background” of the commission, and information about what reporters can expect covering future trials.

He also said that the Department of Defense has been working with the press on other transparency proposals that will aid them in covering the trials. One such plan, announced by the incoming chief prosecutor of the military commissions Brigadier General Mark Martins in an article by The Weekly Standard this week, involves beaming a nearly-simultaneous, closed-circuit broadcast of the Guantanamo trials to a venue in the continental United States.

The broadcast will enable victim’s families and the media to observe the proceedings without having to go to the offshore military base. The stream is expected to have a 40-second delay to allow military officials in the courtroom to press a muffle button if they suspected that national security information would be revealed.

News organizations had requested a broadcast in order to accommodate journalists who would not be able to travel to Guantanamo because of the expenses and quotas for press coverage at the base, which limited the number of reporters who were able to cover the trials in the past.

Oten would not directly confirm the plans for such a program, but did say that “when we have something to release on that subject, we will,” and that the public can expect to hear if they are moving forward with a proposal “soon.”

It was unclear if the system might be available in time for the Nashiri trial. The date of that trial has not been set.