GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Pentagon officials preparing for next month’s arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused terrorists charged with plotting the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are expecting about 600 journalists to apply for the 60 spaces available for members of the media at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice.
The military has not yet begun accepting credentials requests for the KSM arraignment, which is scheduled to begin on May 5, but one Pentagon public affairs official already received 100 inquires from press.
Last week’s pre-trial hearings for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Saudi Arabian man accused of plotting the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, served as a sort of dry run for Guantanamo’s media operation, though the five reporters who attended represented just 1/12th of the 60-person capacity.
This wouldn’t be the first time that KSM and his alleged co-conspirators were arraigned at Guantanamo Bay. Back in the summer of 2008, KSM appeared in court for an initial hearing alongside Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Walid bin Attash, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. Later Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the KSM case would be transferred to federal court before reversing his decision last year following intense opposition from the public and members of Congress. The Pentagon announced the May 5 arraignment as reporters headed to Guantanamo for the al-Nashiri trial were on the tarmac last Tuesday morning.
Having so many reporters at Camp Justice for the KSM trial gives the public affairs staff less flexibility and will likely limit the time reporters get to spend away from their desks at Camp Justice’s tent camp. Officials say they’re limited by the number of vans and personnel available to escort media around the rest of the base, as media can’t leave Camp Justice on their own. It could mean fewer trips to O’Kelly’s, the naval base’s Irish pub frequented by defense lawyers and military prosecutors, and more ordering in from Guantanamo’s Subway sandwich shop. It might make spur-of-the-moment trips to NEX Navy Exchange — the closest thing Guantanamo has to a WalMart — a bit less likely.
Military officials say they’re doing all they can to prepare. An eight-person public affairs detachment from Washington state arrived at Guantanamo a week before reporters so they had some experience handling media before the KSM trial gets underway. They and another public affairs unit are supplementing Guantanamo’s regular 16-person public affairs staff.
“We had specifically asked for these guys to arrive before this hearing so that they had some experience before we went into KSM,” Navy Commander Tamsen A. Reese, director of public affairs for Joint Task Force Guantanamo told TPM in an interview at a picnic table in the former airplane hanger that serves as GTMO’s media operations center.
Reese has been in the position for 18 months (a 12-month deployment is typical) and will soon hand over operations to Navy Captain Robert T. Durand. He held the same position from 2006 to 2007 and had to handle a variety of events that brought harsher scrutiny on Guantanamo Bay including prisoner hunger strikes and suicides. He said he jumped at the chance to return.
Members of the media who make the trek down to Guantanamo for the KSM trial will also have to figure out who gets one of 10 available seats in courtroom’s small viewing area.
“We look to the media to decide amongst themselves who’s going in. Our hope is that the media can sort of figure it out on their own,” says Reese. “It’s interesting, because in my experience, media who haven’t been here before will want to go into the courtroom at least one time, but the ability to watch on closed circuit television and be able to have their computer and write their stories or communicate via email with their editors or producers gives the journalists more flexibility than if they are sitting in the courtroom alone. But different folks look at it differently.”
Janet Hamlin, a courtroom sketch artist who covered the previous KSM court appearance, is hoping for a few changes this time around. Since the view from the small viewing room for the press only allows observers a distant profile view of the defendants, she’s requested to either be placed in the courtroom or have access to all of the video feeds so she can get a good view of all the defendants.
“I’m not going to hold my breath,” Hamlin told TPM. “The most likely scenario is that I’ll have access to the monitors,” adding that the edited stream only offered “glancing views” of the suspects. But she’s not entirely sure if KSM will get to request modifications to his court sketch this time around (he said his nose was too big in Hamlin’s original drawing).
“I’m assuming [the lawyers] still have the power to ask me to modify,” Hamlin said.
Another major change since the last time KSM was arraigned is the addition of a remote location within the U.S. where press can observe the closed circuit feed. The Pentagon expects the ability for the press to watch the feed from Fort Meade in Maryland might accomodate some reporters who would otherwise want to fly to Guantanamo in person. Victims of the attacks and their families will also be able to watch remotely from Fort Meade and from a location in New York.
“The ability to have the remote sites in Fort Meade and elsewhere is really going to help allow the media to cover it, allow victim family members to watch,” Durand told TPM. “It will enhance the transparency of the operation, but it will take some of the logistics pressure off the people here, but still available to those who want to make the trip.”
Still, reporters who regularly cover Guantanamo think the increased media interest might be overwhelming.
“It’s going to be very hard,” Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg told TPM on the flight back from the base.
“People who usually come to Guantanamo are foreign reporters who have no idea what it’s like, or a small band of reporters who’ve been pretty much — I don’t want to say broken down, what’s the word I’m looking for — pretty much exhausted by the experience,” said Rosenberg, a seasoned Guantanamo Bay reporter.
“What the 9/11 thing will do is bring a lot of fresh faces and big egos and I don’t know how the military is going to be able to manage it,” Rosenberg said.
Pentagon officials insist everyone will be treated the same way.
“I don’t care if you write for Highlights magazine, Cat Fancy or the National Journal. Once you’re approved for travel, everyone gets treated equally,” Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a public affairs officer, told TPM. “There will be no special players.”