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Pentagon bans reporters for naming witnesses

By DAVID McFADDEN
May 7, 2010

Gitmo defendant Omar Khadr (Reuters)

The Pentagon on Thursday barred four journalists from military commissions at Guantanamo Bay because they published the name of a witness after being told not to.

The U.S. military wanted the witness identified only as “Interrogator No. 1″ and forbade reporting his name during coverage of this week’s Guantanamo hearings for a 23-year-old Canadian prisoner who is charged with killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

“Your reporters published the name of a witness whose identity was protected in court,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan wrote in an e-mail sent to the news organizations Thursday.

Consequently, he said, the individual reporters have been banned from attending future proceedings, but the news organizations themselves will be allowed to send other journalists.

Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of The Globe and Mail, and Steven Edwards of Canwest News Service included the interrogator’s name in their coverage of this week’s hearings for Omar Khadr at the isolated U.S. base in Cuba.

Editors indicated they intend to appeal the Pentagon’s decision.

“We have been covering Guantanamo for years and we’ve always played by (the) rules — and we did in this case as well. We expect to sort this out and continue to cover this important story, as we have always done,” Mindy Marques, The Miami Herald’s managing editor, wrote in an e-mail responding to an Associated Press request for comment.

Toronto Star editor, Michael Cooke, flatly dismissed the ban as “absurd.”

“This is ridiculous and an unfair ban and the Toronto Star will object strongly to it,” Cooke told the AP.

Canwest Vice President Scott Anderson said “it’s critical that we find out what happened here,” while Globe foreign editor, Stephen Northfield, said the newspaper would appeal the decision.

Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, urged the Pentagon to reconsider its decision to ban the reporters from future tribunals, noting that the name of the interrogator had been published in previous reports.

News media visits to Guantanamo have drawn journalists from dozens of countries, but have always come with long strings attached.

Reporters can cover commission hearings from the courtroom but are barred from speaking with participants, even during breaks. Or they can view the proceedings on a large-screen TV near a press center where military censors peer at their photographs and video and decide what is out of bounds.

Khadr’s lead defense attorney, Barry Coburn of Washington-based Coburn & Coffman PLLC, said that during Thursday’s testimony, the witness described how he told the then-teenage Khadr about a “fictional individual who was raped and murdered in prison.”

Coburn said the witness also testified “about how he screamed at Khadr and turned over furniture during interrogations as part of an interrogation strategy known as ‘fear up'” at a U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Khadr, the son of an Egyptian-born alleged al-Qaida financier, faces a July military trial on charges that include supporting terrorism and murder. The military says he was an al-Qaida fighter who built roadside bombs in Afghanistan and threw a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, during a 2002 firefight.

His lawyers deny he threw the grenade and have argued that he deserves leniency because he was 15 at the time of the battle at an al-Qaida compound.

His defense has asked a military judge to bar the use of incriminating statements he made to interrogators, saying he was mistreated by U.S. authorities while detained in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. A judge is holding hearings on that request this week at Guantanamo.

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