Forget the Peripheral Stuff at Gitmo. The Story Is Who’s There and Why?

On the whole, stories from the last six months have not treated the essential question about Guantanamo: Who is there and why?

The editors of the New Republic tout a story by Jeffrey Rosen on the cover of this week’s magazine, a first-hand account they’ve decided to call “My Gitmo Vacation.” They sure love their counterintuitive stories over there. In the article, Rosen describes a press junket to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Flying first-class and eating, among other delicacies, a “box lunch of halal meatloaf and sautéed vegetables” and sipping “warm chardonnay,” he tells us what the officials at Guantanamo did to reassure him that the detention camp was “no Abu Ghraib.”

There is nothing particularly surprising about the piece. Rosen is taken on a detainee-free tour of the camp, which he concludes, based on what he’s been shown, is “a professionally managed U.S. prison, with competent officials and clean facilities.” He’d been warned to expect no less. One interrogation tableau - of a detainee and an interrogator sitting in La-Z-Boys and sharing McDonald’s French fries - has apparently been staged for more than one visiting journalist. Rosen was spared this scene, but barely - an official told Rosen that he had just missed the interrogation lunch break in which Subway sandwiches were had by all. Still, Rosen is smart enough to leave open the possibility that what he had experienced was, in his words, a “Potemkin tour.”

The junket, as Rosen tells us, was pegged to recent controversy over interrogation methods at the prison, as well as the news, four days prior to Rosen’s “vacation,” that the new Pentagon-devised rules for the military commissions, where Gitmo and other U.S. detainees will finally be tried, leave much to be desired in the habeus corpus department.

It’s the way Rosen ends his piece that was most intriguing. Noting that much attention has been paid to the conditions in the prison and the fight over fair trials for the detainees and - now - the transparency with which those trials will be carried out, he still says that the “best way to restore confidence in the Guantánamo detention facility” is to institute “a meaningful review of whether or not the detainees were and continue to be dangerous enemies of the United States.”

It got us wondering about whether the press itself has directed enough attention at this question. We’ve raised this issue before. By now it’s no secret that the vast majority of the detainees shouldn’t have been there to begin with. The statistics just begin to tell the bigger story: Of the initial 772 detainees, 377 have already been transferred or released. Of the remaining 395, 85 have been approved for transfer to other countries. And even in the pool of 295 that are slated for indefinite detention, only 35 percent are actually talking to interrogators.

At least two studies, relying on the government’s own data - which, as we noted a year ago, have gotten almost no press coverage — have shown that an overwhelming majority of these prisoners initially picked up and placed in the camp are at best “associated” with the Taliban or al Qaeda; just 8 percent are considered “fighters for” those groups, and only 30 percent are considered “members.”

So has the press been telling this story? Kind of. A look at the last six months of coverage in the major national papers (via LexisNexis), shows that Rosen is right to think that the discussion has been dominated by the conditions within the camp and the legal wrangling over fair representation for the detainees.

There was a rise in mentions of Guantanamo last week, for instance, when a federal appeals court stripped federal judges of the authority to review individual detainee cases, ensuring that the Supreme Court, which has already ruled twice on the issue, would be dealing with it again. And earlier this month, the camp was in the news again when a detainee complained about a seven-foot poster of Saddam Hussein at the gallows that had been hung in Gitmo’s recreation area. Classy.

But rarely have reporters tucked deeply into this larger question of just what the specific crimes are that these prisoners are accused of. Even with an increasing number of detainees being released, there has been very little follow up on what landed them in Guantanamo in the first place. At this point, the Bush administration’s baseline explanation for nearly everything associated with its so-called “war on terror”—trust us—should have worn thin with reporters.

It appears that the Washington Post has been the most diligent in trying to tell this story, though even its coverage has been limited. On the fifth anniversary of the camp’s opening, the Post ran a detailed article on what was known thus far about the identities of the detainees. And, as a few other paper’s have, the Post has pieced together accounts of the prisoners’ side of the story from the letters that have been made public, like this one from Majid Khan, one of the fourteen prisoners who have been designated “high-value.”

On the whole, though, the stories from the last six months have not dwelled much on this essential question about Guantanamo: Who is there and why? Yes, the government has made very little information available about the detainees. But our best news operations have the ability to chip away relentlessly on stories of all sorts that are difficult to crack. The evidence available suggests that our government is holding many innocent people, without charging them with a crime, in conditions that have been shown to be abusive in some cases. The government’s lack of transparency about this is appalling, and we need our best journalists to root out this story of who is there and why. Everything else, it seems, is just commentary.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.