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Willful Ignorance at the New York Times

The Old Gray Lady has what it wants, but whines anyway.

12:11 PM, Aug 12, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The New York Times has published an article by Jeremy Peters, who whines about the military’s media tours at Guantanamo Bay. (Note: I was on such a tour in December 2009.) This (news?) piece begins with a bit of snark: “Welcome to Guantánamo Bay, where your tour guide will never leave your side but may not be able to answer any of your questions.”

Willful Ignorance at the New York Times

The Times apparently wants to have free rein to talk to detainees, take their pictures, and regurgitate whatever the detainees’ may happen to say to them. “Reporters are not allowed to speak to detainees, nor can photographers take pictures that could identify them, even though many of their names have become public through military legal proceedings like those this week.” 

The Times doesn’t see why this may cause problems – why can’t al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists communicate with the world via the Old Gray Lady? 

Throughout the article, there is no sense that the military is conducting an extraordinarily difficult mission. The more aggressive detainees throw feces cocktails at guards every day. They are constantly testing their boundaries. Riots have broken out in the past (in one uprising, the detainees used the metal blades of fans they requested to cool off their cell blocks as weapons). It took years for the military to achieve an unsteady equilibrium.

None of this matters. The Times has a basic contempt for the military and it oozes from the article.

But here is a suggestion: If the Times wants more material for reporting on Gitmo, how about its reporters consult the massive database of declassified documents the Times has put together?

You see, the Times compiled a very useful online database called the “Guantanamo Docket.” Media organizations fought to have thousands of pages of documents released to the public, and they won. The documents contain summary memos detailing the allegations against most of the detainees who have ever been held there. Transcripts of their testimony before combatant status review tribunals and administrative review board hearings are available as well.

Even though these documents are helpfully organized on the Times’s web site (I use them all the time), the Times and other media organizations have made little use of them. The Times itself has spent very little of its resources investigating the stories outlined in the documents. There was one major story around the time of the 2008 election, and there have been other sporadic references since then. Most of the Times’s updates to the database consist of tracking transfers from the facility – without any commentary or analysis of whom the transferred detainees really are.

By and large, the Times has ignored its own database.

That’s a shame. The stories outlined in those documents are very interesting. If the documents were clandestinely leaked to a Times reporter, for example, you can bet there would be front-page coverage.

Now, I’m not totally unsympathetic to the Times’s complaints. Some of the military’s rules do seem a bit excessive at times. And at other times the military’s rules don’t make sense. For instance, a few reporters were banned from the base when they reported the name of a particularly nasty interrogator who questioned Omar Khadr in Afghanistan. This revelation came out of a hearing before Khadr’s military commission at Gitmo, but it wasn’t much of a revelation at all. The name of the interrogator had been published previously when he outed himself to the press. The military had a rule in place saying that reporters wouldn’t name interrogators or other personnel in sensitive positions.

When the reporters named this interrogator, they were booted. But since he was already known, what damage was done? None, as far as I can tell. (That said, I’m sure the military doesn’t want to set a precedent in which reporters can indiscriminately report the names of witnesses who are supposed to be protected. The problem is that wasn’t the case here.)

The Times's reporter complains about not being able to learn what brand of hot sauce the detainees like.

Sure, it is a trivial detail. But, who cares? Many, many more interesting details can be found in the Times’s own Guantanamo Docket.

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