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Pitched battle of perception surrounds Guantanamo prison

The Washington Post

Weeds now grow where nearly two dozen kneeling and blindfolded men in orange jumpsuits were photographed as guards in fatigues looked on.

It’s been more than a decade since these iconic images of the first detainees at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay were taken, but for many, they continue to define this barren outcrop on the eastern tip of Cuba.

“It’s as frustrating as complaining about the weather,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Durand.

Durand, 47, heads a 20-strong public affairs unit charged with bringing more transparency to the base. His team is also tasked with convincing visiting reporters — and through them, the world — that Guantanamo has changed significantly and for the better.

It’s an uphill battle, Durand knows, but he has more than just blunt optimism about the detention camps in his bag of tricks. While the military has been willing to fly out hundreds of journalists over the past few years, access remains strictly controlled once they’re on the ground. For those who want to tell the story of Gitmo today, Durand is one of those setting the parameters.

A tall, thickset man with glasses, Durand talks about his work in big, broad terms. He is not merely a public affairs officer, but he is also someone engaged in a struggle against a determined al-Qaida propaganda effort.

“Frankly, there is a very concerted information campaign against us,” he said, referring to a seized al-Qaida document that contained strategies for prisoners to “use the legal process and the press . . . to generate negative publicity.”

“We respond legally to allegations,” Durand added, “but we also respond in the media to stop (these allegations from) getting a life of their own.”

He also insists that the officials in Guantanamo are committed to showing journalists “everything we can, consistent with security.”

But not everyone is convinced. Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for the Miami Herald, has been visiting Guantanamo since before the first detainees arrived in 2002. She said that journalists are used “as a prop in a Pentagon transparency talking point.”

“No tour they have ever provided lets you really know what’s going on with the detainees,” Rosenberg added. She said she largely relies on speaking to “lawyers who get to actually speak to their clients and by constantly reading court records and contracts that give a window inside.”

Durand acknowledges that his task is daunting, and he doesn’t gloss over the troubled history. Instead, his point is to contrast that with how the prison functions today.

The original detention facility, Camp X-Ray, which was used for just a few months in early 2002, has been turned into a public relations tool and something of a tourist attraction for visiting journalists.

Picking a route through the overgrown, snake- and rat-infested camp last month, a public affairs officer draws attention to the 8-by-8-foot (2.4-by-2.4 meter) cells made of chicken wire where detainees slept on concrete floors, used buckets as toilets and were forced to bathe in open-air showers, in full view of other inmates. The tour included a visit to five heat-warped wooden structures that were once used for interrogations.

“A lot of people have either images of Camp X-Ray (the site of the 2002 photographs) or Camp Delta, which was built literally out of shipping containers and steel mesh very quickly,” said Durand, noting that the prison library contains 20,000 different books, 5,000 films and DVDs, and that some prisoners are allowed video game consoles.

“So when people come here (they’re surprised) to see a modern, climate-controlled detention facility that’s based on a contemporary U.S. prison design,” he said.

“We’re proud of the work we do,” Durand stressed. “We know that we have our fair share of critics (but) I think we get a fair shake now.”

Although the military seems keen to show off the new and improved facilities, access to the naval base is granted only on strict terms.

Even before taking off for Guantanamo, reporters are required to sign a 13-page document setting out extensive ground rules. Once at the base, military escorts are ever-present. There is no coverage for U.S. cellphones. Land lines bear a sticker warning that the “use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring.” Guards demand to flick through notes when reporters leave the courtroom where hearings in the case of five alleged al-Qaida terrorists have been taking place.

Interviews with detainees are forbidden and “photographing or taking video of a detainee’s attempts to communicate with members of the media (is) prohibited.”

Camp 7, a top security facility that houses high-value detainees, including professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is off-limits to journalists.

Reporters can interview guards, but Durand admitted they are coached by public affairs employees in advance and instructed to “stay in your lane.” Even Durand has a colleague sit in for his interview.

The military is particularly sensitive to photographs and videos, which reporters are required to submit for approval. Some of the rules seem particularly arbitrary: One escort advises that shots of the media camp can only show three tents at once, despite the layout being visible on Google Earth; only a small corner of the courthouse is allowed to be photographed.

Many restrictions are understandable — this is, after all, a detention facility. But the protocols aren’t always followed. Top brass, for example, are apparently willing to bend their own rules for certain media projects. Take, for example, a late September visit by “60 Minutes.”

Journalists are normally housed at Camp Justice, a collection of beige half-barrel tents pitched on a cracked former runway beside the high security courthouse where military commissions hearings take place. But the “60 Minutes” team was put up in town houses and allowed to break a normally strict rule that prevents the media from accessing detention facilities during weeks when the military court is sitting.

George E. Little, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, “signed off on a waiver that would allow for an interview with (detention facility) personnel during commissions,” according to a Defense Department spokesman.

There is a lengthy waiting list for reporters wishing to tour the reformed prison camps, but in special circumstances the military rushes to arrange access. Last April, when a raid on the communal camp led to a campwide lock down, the Pentagon scrambled to send five journalists to Cuba on two days notice.

“I think they brought us down to demonstrate that they were in control of the camps again while never conceding that they weren’t before,” Rosenberg said.

Even Rosenberg concedes that some aspects of Guantanamo have improved over time: Court documents are now posted on a dedicated website and reporters have easier access away from Camp Justice to visit O’Kelly’s, the base’s Irish bar, and fast-food outlets including McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

Still, “it’s a trial to be constantly under the thumb of the military, dependent on them for our computer links, transportation, telephone, meals, housing,” she said. “But this is an important story, so you suck it up and take it.”